Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves, Op. 32

S, MS, T, Bar, B, (all amplified); 3hn, 2hp, pno, bgtr, 2perc
duration 10'
composed in 1989

dedication: to Alix MacSweeney; in memoriam G.M.H. poetae

commissioned by the BBC

published by Novello/Wise Music


first performed on 15 June 1989, by Singcircle and the London Chamber Symphony, cond. Odaline de la Martinez, at the Concert Hall, Broadcasting House, London


[tape of premiere at NSA]

programme note:

Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves takes its title from the sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins which forms the main text of the work. The sonnet setting is preceded by an introductory section in which use is made of a Latin text by the Renaissance composer Lassus, and is followed by some lines in Greek taken from a poem by George Seferis. All three texts are concerned in one way or another with the idea of an oracle.

The twelve Sibyls of antiquity who are the subject of Lassus' motet sequence would of course have ben familiar to Hopkins, who was not only a poet and a Jesuit, but a distinguished classical scholar. Lassus' introduction speaks of the Sibyls as boldly declaring in their prophecies the hidden secrets of religion, and underlines his use of a special chromatic language as being artistically appropriate to illustrate their mysterious gifts.

Hopkins' sonnet is full of complex and rich internal rhymes, assonances, dissonances, and syntactical tours de force. But difficult as it may be, these elements are plainly there because, like Lassus' chromatic style, they illustrate the matter in hand. The poem is a mediation, a mediation between the power of darkness and light; the diurnal contrast serving to cast its illuminations and shadows upon the poet's inner world.

Hopkins actually spoke of being pleased by the idea of a musical setting for this powerful poem: presumably he imagined music's ability to give a non-linear realisation of it would make comprehension easier. In setting it as a canon with twelve sections, I have responded to Hopkins' known liking for canon as well as to Lassus' Sibyls, who find an echo in the fundamental material of my work, the twelve intervallically unique triads.

The atmosphere of the music owes something to the images of the ritual whereby the Sibyl was suspended in a darkened cave over a smokey fire of laurel, whose psychotropic effect led to the involuntary utterances characteristic of shamanic practice. The disorientated and overlapping texture of the sonnet give way to a few sentences in Greek: Seferis contemplates Mycenae and sense all around him that voice of the past which at the same instant he recognises as part of himself.

Justin Connolly

(source: Novello score)

Performance Note

  1. Spelt from sibyl's leaves is intended to be given with the voices amplidied, in order to produce the slightly disembodied feeling which reflects the general atmosphere of the piece. The instrumnets, whoe fundtino is to support the voices, are not amplieid, with the exception of the bass guitar, which of course has its own syste m of amplification.

    Two distinct posiilities for amplification are envisaged, and the choice between them rests on decisions relevant to the particular situation in which the piece is to be given: in particular the acoustic qualities of the hall itself. If it is possible to have maximum separation of the groups, there will be scope for using variable levels and altering the balance between them in the course of performance. If howdver they are oblibged to be close together, then the sevcond alernative is probably more suitable, in which a fixed setting is used for all three gorups which will remain unaltered throughout.

    In devising a scale of values from 1 to 5, with the centra. term 3 being the amoint of amplifcaiotn necessar yto peroduce the effect described above, the controller of tzhe equipment will have to decide first what 3 represents in the immediate acoustic context, and from that work out the effective maximal and minima lpositions on the scale of amplitues. Thus 5 will always e that degree which gives a feeling of strong am,plification wituot distortion of any kind, and 1 will be the least perceptible degree of amplifaciton. The code is expressed in the score in the form of circle numersl placed allngside the letters which define the groups themselves, right, left and cenbtral. When the level lastst for the rest of a page in any one group, it will be followed by a horizontal arrow . When a gradual transition is required, there will be an arrow included upwards or downwards. When a suggestn "swoop" to a new level is needed the numeral shows the place at which this change takes place, preceded by amn apüropriate arrow. The numersl in the score are mere suggestions, however, and the operator should fee l free to respoinsd in whatever way best clarifies the textual and musical situation in terms of the acoustic propertire involve.

  2. Conventional signs for the vocal effects are as follows:

    Prolonged final sibilant
    Omission of a particaulr syllable from a word. e.g. Si(byl)larum

    The Greek text folwos the speech rhyrhm of the original fairly closely, with accents showing where the stresses fall: generally the vocal character is light and quick-moving, not without a certain almost lisping quality.

  3. The sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins uses, as is customary with him, some words which are not in everyday use, or are taken from the usages of dialect. Thus:

    'Pashed' means "crushed together, impacted".
    'Throughther' is Scots, pronounced as written and means "through one another".
    'Disremembered' is Irish, and means "forgotten".
    'Round' is an Old English verb, and means "counsel, advise".

    The setting of the Hopkins text brings into simultaneity many words amd phrases quite widely separated in the original, but because the whole poem is shot through with this kind of verbal colour, rhyme, half-rhyme, assonance and so on, the emphasising of such relationships is artistically appropriate. Singers should therefore be very aware not only of the verbal colour of their individuallines, but attempt to make that colour chime and resoante with near-rhymes and cross-references in the other parts.

Texts of Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves

a) From Lassus' Prophetiae Sibyllarum (1575)

SIbyllarum Prophetiae

b) Gerard Manyle y Hopkins (1844-89)

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, ' vaulty, voluminous, . . . stupendous
Evening strains to be time’s vást, ' womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.
Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ' her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height
Waste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, ' stárs principal, overbend us,
Fíre-féaturing heaven. For earth ' her being as unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-
tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; ' self ín self steepèd and páshed – quite
Disremembering, dísmémbering, ' áll now. Heart, you round me right
With: Óur évening is over us; óur night ' whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.
Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ' damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,
Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! ' Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind
Off hér once skéined stained véined varíety ' upon áll on twó spools; párt, pen, páck
Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds – black, white; ' right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But thése two; wáre of a wórld where bút these ' twó tell, each off the óther; of a rack
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, ' thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.

c) Extract from the poem Mycenae (1935) by George Seferis (b. 1900), Nobel Prize 1963
Translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

Voices out of the stone out of sleep
deeper here where the world darkens,
memory of toil rooted in the rhythm
beaten upon the earth by feet
Bodies sunk into the foundations
of the other time, naked. Eyes
fixed, fixed on a point
that you can't make out, much as you want to:
the soul
struggling to become your own soul.

Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves was commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation for Radio Three's 'Music in our Time' series, and was given its first performance in the Concert Hall of Broadcasting House on Thursday, June 15, 1989, by the vocal ensemble Singcircle in collaboration with the London Chamber Symphony. The performance was conducted by Odaline de la Martinez.

This work, written to commemorate the centenary of the death of Gerard Manley Hopkins, is also dedicated to Alix MacSweeney, to whom I am indebted for practical help with the Greek text.

Justin Connolly
June, 1989


other comments: