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Joby Talbot

Publisher: Chester Music

Path of Miracles (2005)
Commissioned by Tenebrae
Text Writer
Robert Dickinson
Chester Music Ltd
Chorus a cappella / + 1 instrument
Year Composed
1 Hour 0 Minutes
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Programme Note
Joby Talbot Path of Miracles (2005)
Path of Miracles is a musical pilgrimage that has been three and a half years in the making. After Gabriel Crouch had told me of his and Nigel Short's ideas for a new piece about the mediaeval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, I was taken to a Tenebrae recording session at the Temple Church, where I was utterly bowled over by the sheer beauty of the sound of this unique choir. A trip to northern Spain with my wife Claire and one-year-old son Maurice followed, and over ten magical days (and one distinctly unmagical car crash) we visited many of the important points of the Camino, including four of its greatest churches: the abbey at Roncesvalles in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and the great cathedrals of Burgos, Leon and Santiago itself. The impressions these places left on me became the basis for the musical structure of the work.

Back in England I managed, with the help of The Poetry Society, to track down Robert Dickinson, whose poem 'Proofs' about mediaeval French saints I'd read some five years previously. He seemed to me the ideal man for the job and so it proved, as he constructed a libretto of inspired reflections on the pilgrimage juxtaposed with extant mediaeval texts. In sourcing the latter, Professor Jack Sage of King's College, London was an invaluable help.

Path of Miracles is dedicated to the memory of my father, Vincent Talbot, 1916-2005.

Preview the score

  • Ensemble
    Nigel Short
    Signum Classics:
  • Music Sales Group:
  • Ensemble
    Craig Hella Johnson
    harmonia mundi:
  • 19 NOV 2019
    de Jong Concert Hall, 800 E Campus Dr, Provo, UT, 84602, USA
    Nigel Short, conductor

    Other Dates:
    10 November - Hugh Hodgson Concert Hall, Athens, GA, 30605, USA
    12 November - Duke Chapel, Durham, NC, 27708, USA
    15 November - Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, Chicago, IL, 60637, USA
    20 November - Christ Cathedral, Garden Grove, CA, 92840, USA
    22 November - Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall, Ashland, OR, USA

...dramatizes a religious pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, with passages in English, Galician and Latin; juxtapositions of intense serenity and celebratory robustness; and an ecstatic finale that includes a processional by the choir through the church.
Allan Kozinn, New York Times,08/11/2011
From its opening eerie rising glissando (a Taiwanese singing effect called pasiputput) for the gentlemen of Nigel Short’s Tenebrae, to the final distribution of the pilgrims having reached Finisterre, west of Santiago – when the singers disappear from the audience’s view, singing and chanting into the distance until all that is left is silence – Joby Talbot’s ambitious a cappella “Path of Miracles” is little short of a musical miracle itself. Postponed from its original première date of 7 July because of the bomb atrocities that hit London that day, it was heartening that both the City of London Festival, Tenebrae and the church authorities of St Bartholomew the Great were able to re-schedule the première so quickly, and for two performances as originally planned. While this meant that Evensong was cancelled to hold the first performance, the fact that the performances were on a Sunday rather than the original Thursday seemed perfectly apt. Audiences remembered the fatalities of 7/7 in silent contemplation and then in prayer before each performance. Commissioned by Tenebrae, but with the première facilitated by the City of London Festival, “Path of Miracles” was inspired by the great medieval pilgrimages to the north-western tip of Spain. On a family holiday Talbot stopped at four main points of the pilgrim’s route – Roncesvalles, nestling at the foot of the Pyrenees, Burgos, Leon and Santiago di Compostella itself. The original idea was for Tenebrae to tour the pilgrims’ route and perform the respective parts in each place, before bringing the first three pieces together at the final destination, topped by the final section in what would have been the work’s first complete performance. While there is hope that one day such a musical pilgrimage could be achieved, the première itself was in the wonderful 12th-century confines of St Bartholomew the Great, hard by Smithfield Market. In the cool of the Norman stonework with the late afternoon sun streaming through the high windows, the ambulatory nature of the pilgrimage was encapsulated in Ceri Sherlock’s spare but effective staging that congregated the choir at either end of the transept, in the choir stalls beneath the organ loft and before the alter. The upper levels of the church were used as well, and individual singers (the work is scored for 17 separate voices) would peel off and intone their part around the church, creating a wonderful acoustic effect, most memorably at the start, where the ladies’ voices rang high above the men’s pasiputput from the gallery, in the recurring four-line stanza naming Santiago as the ultimate destination, and at the end as the choir dissipated throughout the church. Talbot, eschewing 19th- and 20th-century vocal styles looked back much earlier to Renaissance polyphony and to ‘primitive’ (my word) music, eventually settled on a mixture of texts that start with a Biblical reference to Herod’s murder of James – in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Basque, medieval French, English and German. As these overlapping versions of the same lines die away, English verses specially written by poet Robert Dickinson take over. The first section develops the theme from James’s death to the establishment almost a millennium later of the Cathedral of St James at Santiago that would – when Jerusalem was cut off by the burgeoning Crusades – become a Catholic substitute as a destination for pilgrimage. There is a recognisable eastern tang to certain of the harmonies and the only non-vocal music is the prerogative of a set of chimes. The second section, “Burgos”, in Dickinson’s words, contrasts the man-made difficulties (cheating inn-keepers, light-fingered Englishmen) of the 500-mile journey itself with the extraordinary effects St James’s relics were reputed to have. The third movement – “Leon”, for which the whole choir moved down the transept from altar to choir-stalls – concentrates on the geographical and physical ordeals for the pilgrims. Both this and the final part – “Santiago” itself – are introduced by plainchant interpolated into Talbot’s original design. As the pilgrims finally see sight of their destination, so to returns their zeal; the very opening incantation to Santiago comes back and, with the vocal lines picking up speed, Talbot launches into an excerpt from “Carmina Burana” (not one, as far as I remember, in Orff’s version). This sudden snatch of secular song bursts onto our consciousness in a spirited five-beat rhythm, which then subtly adds a beat to slip into a more normal compound triple beat for three Latin verses. There is a coda – as the pilgrims pass Santiago for Finisterre (Land’s End) – the music slips into a suitably valedictory ending, closing with repeated lines “Holy St James, great St James/God help us now and evermore” – the text to which the choir members, resplendent in their long purple robes, start to disperse magically around the church. The audience’s focus is on the single countertenor who walks one final time down the transept and under the organ loft. In the first performance, albeit beguilingly atmospheric, there was a little untidiness in the final cut-off – the drone provided by those behind the alter hanging on longer than the countertenor’s final words of incantation. In the second performance, ending after dusk, with only flickering candlelight illuminating the interior, the cut-off was perfectly managed between the disparate groups. At over an hour, this is Talbot’s longest single work to date. In its distinctive style, although using elements that are recognisably his (particularly passages that set up a minimalist repetitive rhythm overlaid with a soaring, slower melody), it is a major statement and supremely assured. Tenebrae – which has already recorded it for release later in the year – have surely got a major hit; I would go as far to suggest that Talbot’s “Path of Miracles” is to the first decade of the 21st-century what Arvo Pärt’s "Passio" was twenty years earlier.
Nick Breckenfield,,17/07/2005
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