The Ecstasies Above takes for its title a phrase found in the lyric poem, Israfel, by Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) which was first published in 1831 in The Southern Messenger. The poem is set in entirety with the exception of one stanza.
Through his creative description of the angel, Israfel, and the heavens, Poe creates a virtuous image of the supernatural. Poe compares this heavenly vision to the harsh reality of human existence. Whilst the beauty of Israfel's voice and lyre can silence even the moon and the stars in the heavens, Poe suggests that if Israfel were placed in an earthly environment, he would not sing with such zest. From the Koranic source of the name for the protagonist, the story is refashioned by Poe into an homage of ecumenicity to an all-encompassing angel of music.
Musically the score makes much use of textural variation between the three groups (full chorus, solo octet and string quartet). The tug of war between material that is almost childlike in its playfulness and sections that seem more sombre reflect my own thoughts on Poe’s œuvre. As a European transplanted to North America, I am intrigued in the seeming disparity between the quasi-adulation of Poe's poetry in Europe and the much cooler reaction he has always encountered in his native environs.
I wrote The Ecstasies Above at Yaddo, a mansion now used as an artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York. Before Yaddo took its present form, it was an area of land first settled in the late 18th century by Jacobus Barhyte, a soldier in the American Revolution. Visitors to Barhyte's estate included John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and, most importantly in the context my work, Edgar Allan Poe. He visited in the early 1840s where he scripted part of an early version of his most famous poem, The Raven.
The Ecstasies Above was commissioned from the Robert Baker Commissioning Fund for Sacred Music by Yale Institute of Sacred Music for Yale Schola Cantorum, Simon Carrington, Conductor.
New York, February 2007
Preview the score