An Awe-Inspiring Path of Miracles from Conspirare
By Paul E. Robinson
DIGITAL REVIEW — For many Christians, Spain’s Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is one of the holiest sites in the world. Since the ninth century, pilgrims have followed a path, often called “The Way of St. James” or simply “The Way,” starting in Roncesvalles in southern France and ending at the cathedral in Galicia in northwestern Spain. It is an arduous journey of spiritual dedication and discovery. British composer Joby Talbot, who composed Path of Miracles in 2005 for the London-based choir Tenebrae, made the pilgrimage himself in preparation for the commission. The result was a powerful and moving a cappella piece — unaccompanied except for the occasional use of crotales or small cymbals — which gives listeners a riveting sense of the journey. Tenebrae recorded Path of Miracles in 2006 (Signum Classics SIGCD078); this new recording by the Texas ensemble Conspirare is even finer. St. James, one of the first disciples to join Jesus, became the first disciple martyred for his faith; his is the only such martyrdom recorded in the New Testament. Executed by King Herod in 44 AD, St. James had, at one stage in his life, preached the Gospel in Spain. Somehow a legend took shape in which St. James was taken by boat to Galicia in Spain after his execution and buried there. When relics of St. James turned up in Galicia 800 years later, St. James became a towering figure for the faithful in the region. (“Santiago” is a Galician version of “St. James.”) Pilgrimages began from faraway places to Santiago de Compostela. While there are many routes to the cathedral from various towns in France and Spain, the most popular begins in Roncesvalles on the French side of the border and continues via León to Santiago, a journey of 800 km (slightly less than 500 miles).
This is the route that Joby Talbot follows in his choral work. The text by Robert Dickinson, presented in the many different languages of the pilgrims, tells the story of St. James and the emotional and spiritual path of the pilgrimage. The work is divided into four movements, each of which is named after a place along the route. The musical style of the piece is difficult to describe. With the first notes, a religious and somewhat mystical atmosphere is created. When I listen to this piece, I feel that I have been transported back in time to some unknown period and place. Talbot has composed music that sounds like it must be from a culture other than our own, not only because the musical style is so radically new, but also because it has a primitive quality that is at once mysterious and awe-inspiring. The opening bars of Path of Miracles are remarkable by any standard. (Talbot has said that his inspiration was a recording by the aboriginal Bunun tribe of Taiwan.) The music begins from nothing; then one begins to hear some very low sounds; gradually, the rest of the choir joins in, and the music ascends higher in chromatic fashion and gets louder and louder. The result is a frightening build-up of sound that culminates in a sustained outburst from the sopranos in their highest register. While the effect is wonderful on the Tenebrae recording, the Conspirare rendition, led by Craig Hella Johnson, sustains the tension longer. Later in this first movement, the men of Tenebrae express extraordinary anger as they tell of the murder of St. James. Conspirare is less forceful by comparison, perhaps because the ensemble is more distantly recorded. The third movement, “León,” depicts the pilgrims on the road, contrasting “the sun that shines within me” and “the sun overhead, too bright for the eye.” The high sopranos must repeat the same phrase over and over, and Conspirare’s singers do so effortlessly, to striking effect. The climax of the piece comes toward the end of the last movement, when Santiago itself finally comes into view. The joyous choral exclamation is overwhelming. Conspirare numbers 27 professional singers and, as soloists and ensemble members, each one of them gives a performance of total commitment. The recording was made at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas, a space that is rather modern in appearance and certainly not large by cathedral standards; nonetheless, the recorded sound suggests a much larger church, which is exactly what the music requires. Anyone interested in learning more about this historic pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela would probably enjoy the 2010 film called The Way, written by Emilio Estevez, who also stars in the movie with his father, Martin Sheen. The film is a vivid depiction of the grueling, often life-changing journey from Roncesvalles to Santiago.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster, and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.Date posted: July 3, 2015