Gwyneth Walker

Songs of Ecstasy

for SATB Chorus (2011)
for Tenor and Organ (2012)

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Download an MP3 file of a performance of this work (choral version) by Counterpoint, Nathaniel Lew, conductor.
Download an MP3 file of a performance of this work (choral version) by the New Hampshire Master Chorale, Dan Perkins, conductor.

Download a PDF file of the score (SATB) of this composition. For perusal only -- not printable.
Download a PDF file of the score (tenor and organ) of this composition. This file of excerpted sample pages is for perusal only and is not printable. To hear MP3 files of the complete songs, see the above links.

Songs of Ecstasy are musical settings of three poems by Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Trappist monk who lived for many years in solitude at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Merton's writings express an imagination sparked by divine revelation, and a soul filled with ecstatic spiritual awareness.

The poems selected for Songs of Ecstasy are all celebratory in their message. They describe God's presence in nature, in all creatures and creation, within the human spirit and in the mysterious depths of the soul.

The musical settings, while endeavoring to capture the total expression of each poem, focus upon several key words and images. For example, in the first movement, "Song: When Rain Sings Light," the word "light" recurs many times, often prefaced by the syllable "la" leading into "light" - "la la la light" These are intended to represent specks of light. They open and close the song. Another special image is that of solitude ("with pure and solitary songs"). Thus, the very powerful words, "And speak to God, my God," are sung by a solo Tenor, marked "ecstatic."

The second song, "Psalm," opens with a splendid phrase, "When psalms surprise me with their music, and antiphons turn to rum, the Spirit sings." A mixed-meter rhythmic background of tapping creates a Caribbean atmosphere often associated with "rum." Later in the song, a steadily-swaying 7/8 meter is introduced with the African imagery of zebras and antelopes.

"Stranger" has many phrases of special interest. "One bird sits still watching the work of God" is the culmination of the previous three stanzas of poetry. And thus, the musical expression is a point of arrival in the ascent of the phrases. The music then recedes into peaceful expression until the introduction of flowing patterns which provide a background for "one cloud upon the hillside..."

The most significant contrast in this song is the change of modality, from C Mixolydian (with Bb) to C Lydian (with F#). This change occurs with the very central stanza, "Closer and clearer than any wordy master, Thou inward Stranger whom I have never seen." These words describe the Spirit of God within, perhaps mysterious and almost unknown to each of us. The use of the Lydian mode creates the "closeness" and friction of the F# against the G, presented first in the men's voices, and at the end, in the Sopranos. This "stranger" within creates a powerful and urgent closeness, a voice seeking to emerge. And although the music returns to the Mixolydian mode for most of the remainder of the song, the final chord (to end "Our cleanest Light is One!") expands upward to the F#/G dissonance - essential and ecstatic.

Notes by the composer