John Joubert: The Choir Invisible
A Choral Symphony for Baritone Solo, Chorus and Orchestra
The work is in three sections, which can briefly be summarised as follows:
1. A setting for chorus and orchestra of the famous passage from Ecclesiasticus beginning "Let us now praise famous men." The composer and the poet are specifically mentioned as being worthy of praise, but so also are those "which have no memorial" but "whose righteousness hath not been forgotten." The setting is broadly celebratory in tone, and symphonic in musical treatment.
2. A setting, for baritone solo and orchestra, of Stephen Spender's poem I think continually of those who were truly great. The poem meditates on the theme of human greatness, on those "whose lovely ambition was that their lips should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song." Here the musical treatment is more intimate, in contrast to the more affirmative tone of the first section.
The setting as a whole is in the form of free variations on themes derived from the first section.
3. A setting for choir and orchestra of George Eliot's poem The Choir Invisible. Here the theme is again that of human achievement, in particular creative achievement, and the poet employs the image of a choir composed of "those immortal dead who live again," whose greatness continues to act beneficiently on the world and whose invisible presence diffuses good through the medium of music. It will be unnecessary for me to point out the appropriateness of this poem to the present occasion. George Eliot has long been a favourite writer of mine, and her novel Silas Marner was the subject of my first full-length opera. Whatever its merits as poetry, this poem has all her unique fusion of intelligence and idealism. As I write, the music for this section has not yet been composed, but it will be, like the first section, for chorus and orchestra and broadly symphonic in scope. The three sections follow each other without a break.
© August 1967 John Joubert
Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us. The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning. Such as did bear rule in their kingdom, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies: leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent in their instructions; such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing; rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations: all these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times. There be of them that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. And some there be which have no memorial: who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them. But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten. With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance and their children are within the covenant. Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes. Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore. The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will show forth their praise.
Ecclesiasticus, Chapter 44.
I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul's history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
What is precious, is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the Spirit
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre.
Born of the sun they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
Stephen Spender (b. 1909)
(Words reproduced from "Collected Poems" by Stephen Spender by kind permission of Faber & Faber Ltd)
O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again;
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man's search
To vaster issues.
So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing as beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, failed, and agonised
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child,
Poor anxious penitence is quick dissolved;
Its discords, quenched by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air.
And all our rarer, better truer self,
That sobbed religiously in yearning song,
That watched to ease the burthen of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better - saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary,
And shaped it forth before the multitude
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reverence more mixed with love,
That better self shall live till human time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gathered like a scroll within the tomb
Unread for ever.
This is life to come,
Which martyred men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, to be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardour, fee pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense.
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.
George Eliot (1819-1880