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Long Soul’s Journey into Spanish Mysticism


George Case, conductor

The third and final candidate for the directorship of Boston Cecilia, George Case conducts the chorus in the Boston premiere of Kile Smith’s Canticle, on Sunday March 11th at 3pm at All Saints in Brookline. The work is based on the English translation of the Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross, the 16th-century Spanish mystic poet. For chorus, three, cellos and percussion, it strives to illuminate the concept of the journey amidst social, societal and political turmoil. Case explains why he chose the piece:

“Ultimately, Canticle by Kile Smith is a mystical journey of the soul through trial towards something or someplace that is free of the trappings of the world. I chose this work because of my relationship with Kile and because of a kindred spirit I find in him when it comes to his compositions for the voice. It also approaches a universal question and subject — that of the meaning of what we experience in the world — without requiring a religious answer. Kile’s music is text-driven, tuneful, exceptionally crafted, emotional, and supported by intellect. One cannot help but relate to his music because all of these levels are integrated into his music; he meets us where we are and allows us inroads into this piece of art through any way we can.

“My goal with this concert and the Boston Cecilia was to build upon the exceptional tradition, reputation, and ability of Cecilia, while also introducing to them, and Boston audiences, a piece from a composer at the top of his craft and truly advancing the choral art form. As such, Kile and I will delve into the meaning of this piece, his journey in writing it, and our journey in bringing it to performance in a short composer-conductor conversation at the beginning of the concert. Our goal with this experience is twofold: one, to introduce the people behind the musical creation — to find the humanity in this piece about humanity’s journey through the world; and two, to allow the audience to enter into the piece with some of the background and context we have amassed during our rehearsal process.”

Composing Canticle (by Kile Smith)

Saints bless the world even when the world doesn’t know it, but saints who write let the world know it, and if we pay attention their words can go all the way in regardless of our tradition. St. John of the Cross, one of those blessings, created some of the deepest and finest mystical literature the world has ever known. “Deepest” speaks to the spiritual in his writing, and “finest” to the literary, for St. John’s Dark Night of the Soul and the Spiritual Canticle are recognized as writings of the highest order. His writing is clear, and it is sensual. He draws images and words directly from the Song of Solomon (aka the Song of Songs). The bride and bridegroom, flowers, the stag on the hill, and foxes in the garden all populate and animate The Spiritual Canticle.

Although the words are clear, they are not always easily understood. The language of the Bible and the language of the troubadours may be foreign to some of us, and mystical meaning is, by its nature, often hidden. But anyone who has ever been in love will not miss the frustration, or even anger, here:

 Alas! who can heal me?
 Give yourself at once to me,
 do not send me
 any more messengers today
 who cannot tell me what I want.

or will not know the pull of this feeling:

 The bride has entered
 the sweet garden of her desire;
 she rests in delight,
 resting her neck
 on the sweet arms of the Beloved.

St. John of the Cross uses experiences we know in this world to show us a world deeper still. It is a world we may have guessed at or may have even hoped for, but it is a world we do not yet know.

The challenge I felt in setting this text was the layer upon layer of meaning inhabiting each stanza, even surrounding every word. The way I dealt with it was to center in on, and to try to convey, one emotion.

Music cannot explicate text, after all. I love creating music for words, I always have, but music does not teach. What it does is open a window into the soul. I look into mine and attempt to create, in sound, what I feel. If I have done it well, someone else will feel it, too.

I cannot take full credit for the interesting combination of instruments in Canticle. Craig Hella Johnson is music director of the Vocal Arts Ensemble in Cincinnati, which commissioned this piece. Craig and I were discussing what the commission would be, and when he liked my idea of this text, we agreed it should be accompanied by something unusual. He mentioned a choral work he liked, Dominick Argento’s 25-minute Walden Pond, which uses three cellos and harp.

I fell for the cellos immediately, and wondered about making them a quartet. Canticle, though, needed enough variety in the sound to carry it for over an hour. We both wanted to avoid piano, if only to aid the otherworldliness of the text. Harp has a percussive quality in its plucked sound, but is still another string instrument. No, I should just go right to percussion, I thought. Marimba is lovely, but that would be a lot of dark wood sounding with the cellos. It should be something brighter, but not so bright as glockenspiel. It should have the flexibility of playing chords, and it should be able to carry over the choir and cellos.

Vibraphone quickly became the obvious choice. To it I added bass drum, which I fell in love with when I wrote The Consolation of Apollo for choir, bass drum, and crotales. You may not have spent too much time thinking about it, but the bass drum is capable of a great range of personality. At a soft volume it carries very well. The only “special” technique I call for is crumpled paper to be placed on it at one point (the drum is mounted horizontally). The percussionist slaps the paper with one hand, making a nice chiff sound. This is in No. 10, “My Beloved Is the Mountains.”

Kile Smith, composer

Finally, the tambourine appears here and there throughout the work. I heard it right away, though, for the beginning “Where have you hidden yourself?” in which I imagined music of the 16th-century Spanish Renaissance and a troubadour playing guitar (provided by the cellos, pizzicato).

There are a few composerly techniques in Canticle, such as voices moving in opposite directions in “O crystal spring! If only on your mirrored surface…” and in “The little white dove has returned to the ark with an olive branch,” a simple round that keeps mutating into something fairly elaborate. But mostly, Canticle is composed, as is all my music on texts, with text painting. That is, I keep the words ever before me, and the feelings they enkindle. I write the music to that.

Anyone who follows the words, and who grows to love them as I have, will grow into the music. My hope is that the music and the words will go all the way in.

Tickets ($15-$62) are available at and can also be purchased by calling 617-232-4540.

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