Thursday, 29 August 2013

Dark Night of the Soul

A musical recommendation: Ola Gjeilo (just found via his piece The Ground on Classic FM). He's a Norwegian-born composer of a rather lyrical repertoire - piano, choral, symphonic, neoclassical, crossover - with considerable inspiration in cinematic music. It's not the kind of weird stuff I usually like, but it's nevertheless quietly powerful. Check out his official site for more background.

On first encounter, I especially like Dark Night of the Soul, Gjeilo's wistfully ecstatic arrangement for choir, string quartet and piano (in a style somewhat akin to Thomas Newman) of the poem Dark Night by Juan de Yepes y Álvarez (1541-1591). This Spanish friar and mystic, better known as St John of the Cross, was heavily involved in religious politics during the Counter-Reformation, and in 1577 was arrested and imprisoned by his opponents; during his incarceration he wrote the poem La noche oscura del alma.

It's rather baffling to analyse. As explained in the Wikipedia article, Dark Night of the Soul, the author later wrote a theological treatise explaining its meaning: a narration in allegorical form of the journey of the soul from its bodily home to its union with God (the treatise is here at the Catholic Treasury) and subsequent critique largely takes this at face value. But I wonder at the psychology behind it. Was John sublimating? Was even he himself falling into the Christian tradition of explaining away overtly erotic texts as allegory (as in the explanation of the Song of Songs as "Christ's declaration of his love for the church")? Go figure - it's pretty well impossible to psychoanalyse a 16th century mystic. But not being religious, I can't understand the intellectual gymnastics required to construe this as anything but a brilliantly intense love poem written from a female viewpoint.
La noche oscura del alma (Dark night of the soul)

One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

On that glad night
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything
with no other light or guide
than the One that burned in my heart.

This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the Beloved into his Lover.

Upon my flowering breast,
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased;
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

- St John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (1991)
- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Intrigued, i went in search of samples ... liked what I heard ... have just bought it from Amazon!

    Thank you for the recommendation :-)