Path of Miracles, composed by Joby Talbot (b. Aug. 25, 1971), was written in 2005 following a commission from the vocal chamber group Tenebrae. Under the direction of Nigel Short, Tenebrae's first performance was scheduled for July 7, 2005 in London, but was delayed because of the bombings that shook the city that day. The City of London Festival quickly rescheduled the event, and the world premiere took place on July 17, 2005, at St. Bartholomew-the-Great Church in London.
A pilgrimage in composition, Path of Miracles is a journey, as the four movement titles (Roncesvalles, Burgos, León and Santiago) are the four main posts along the Camino de Santiago, one of the most taxing pilgrimage routes in Roman Catholic tradition. Using selections from the medieval texts Codex Calixtinus, Miragres de Santiago, and Roman Catholic liturgy, Path of Miracles incorporates musical styles from the Taiwanese Bunun people to the pilgrim's hymn Dum Pater Familias, and is sung in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Basque, French, English and German. Robert Dickinson is the librettist and the composition is scored a cappella for SSSSSAAAATTTTBBBB, published by Chester Novello.
Path of Miracles is dedicated to the memory of Talbot's father, Vincent Talbot (1916-2005).
The opening movement, Roncesvalles, begins Path of Miracles at a geographically popular starting point for the pilgrimage. As the choir begins a mysterious glissando (termed Pasiputput, from the Bunun people), travel is ingrained in the stage direction, calling the tenors and basses from offstage to join the main choir. The aura is open and overwhelming as multiple languages and sound clusters of E major and E minor fill the air, finally climaxing with a fortissimo E minor chord featuring “bells,” played by crotales. Talbot uses ostinatos throughout the composition extensively, emulating the long walk endured by the pilgrims. Talbot also employs clashing tonalities, encapsulating the pain endured physically as well as the intense mental contemplation that a pilgrimage necessitates. While the basses drone pedal tones, a slow rhythmic transformation develops into a driving engine that, with gradually shorter and more syncopated rhythms, propels the music forward. In all, Rocesvalles replays the life and martyrdom of St. James and conveys to how his body came to rest in Santiago.
Burgos, is epitomized with the final lines: Ora pro nobis, Jacobe/A finibus terrae ad te clamavi (Pray for us, O Jacob/From the end of the earth I cry to you). A direct quote from Psalm 61, Burgos is a prayer. Reflecting on disease, death and other tests of faith, this movement is written for the penitent as the reality of the pilgrimage sets in. Beginning in a homophonic choral setting, as the movement progresses the voices gain independence, become polyphonic, and encapsulate the impressive church and bells at Burgos.
Voices of the angelic choir herald León, the last post remaining before Santiago, a stark contrast to the pleading prayers evoked in Burgos. Ostinatos, like previous movements, are the backdrop Talbot uses to set his melodies, like a psalm-tone in Gregorian chant. The harmonies are more consonant, and even the texts reflect a hopeful and aspiring love: Beate, qui habitant in domo tua, Domine; In saecula saeculorum laudabant te (Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: they will be still praising thee [Psalm 84:4]). Diatonic and step-wise in motion, the simplicity of melody is a chant, a song of wonder, for the graces of God's gifts.
Reminiscent of the melody from Roncesvalles, the opening chant for Santiago is a lone voice recalling the scenery and difficulties of the journey thus far. A soloist speaks, in English, of the landscape and road to Santiago, while the supporting choir begins the rhythmic drive first encountered in Roncesvalles. Talbot employs Debussy-like planing harmonies, creating tonal ambiguity while the bass melody is employed as the driving rhythmic engine that propels the movement into the joyous following section (e.g. Figure 4, m.1 G major chord with A added, leading to a dominant 7th E minor chord, m. 2 G MM7 to a F-sharp minor/major 7th, then sequence repeats). The spirit and joy of the end to the physically and spiritually tumultuous journey, Dickinson uses the liturgical language of Latin to phrase his comments on the saint's life, the choir singing a prayer to St. James:
O beate Jacobe
Oh blessed James,
At the sight of the end ahead, the pilgrim's hymn is heard again. The choir sings a jubilant aspiration to heaven while slowly walking offstage, symbolizing a turning away to reflection, worship and prayer.
Performances and recordings
The choral groups Tenebrae, The Crossing, Conspirare, Volti, The Singers, Peregrine Vocal Ensemble, the Elora Festival Singers, and The Giovanni Consort have performed Path of Miracles publicly in concert. The University of Michigan gave a performance in 2010 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Virginia Chorale performed the work in 2014 in Norfolk, Virginia. The Durham University Chamber Choir gave a performance in February 2018 in the historic setting of Durham Cathedral Chapter House. In June 2018, Yale Schola Cantorum toured the Camino de Santiago, singing masses and performing the piece in its entirety in cathedrals at each of the four main cities. Chamber choir Audite performed Path of Miracles in Helsinki and Tampere in November and December 2018. Voces Boreales of Montreal as well as Pro Coro Canada of Edmonton, both under the direction of Michael Zaugg, also have performed this piece in various Canadian venues. The Giovanni Consort gave the Australian premiere of the work in Perth, Western Australia in November 2014. Boston Choral Ensemble, under Andrew Shenton performed it twice in 2014 in Boston, MA and again in 2019 at Mission Church. The Icelandic chamber choir, Hljómeyki, performed the piece twice in 2019, in Kristskirkja, Reykjavik on April 25 and Skálholtskirkja, South Iceland on April 27, conducted by Þorvaldur Örn Davíðsson. Sydney Philharmonia Chamber Choir gave two performances of Path of Miracles in 2018, on August 17 at the Riverview Theatre, Parramatta and on the following day, August 18 in the crypt of St Mary's cathedral in Sydney. Both performances were conducted by Brett Weymark.
Path of Miracles was given its first full theatrical staging by British director John La Bouchardière at Spoleto Festival USA, in May 2019, performed by Westminster Choir College, with lighting design by Scott Zielinski.
There are two recordings of the composition, one by Tenebrae with Nigel Short conducting, produced by Gabriel Crouch, and distributed by Signum Classics and the other by Conspirare with Craig Hella Johnson conducting. There is a recording of the third movement, "León", by Tenebrae on Signum Classics.
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