Altus Prosator (2018)
Duration: ca. 60'
Commissioned by the Maryland Choral Society
Premiere Date: May 20, 2018, Forestville, MD
Altus Prosator is a 6th-century Scottish poem which seeks to encompass all of creation, from the beginning of the universe, to the present world, and unto the apocalypse itself echoing a cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction found in many cultures throughout the world. Altus presents the listener with a number of unfamiliar words, even for those with some experience of Latin. This is due to the text being from a specific poetic and linguistic tradition, that of Hiberno-Latin. “Hibernia” is the Roman word for Ireland, a derivation of both the Gaelic “Éire” (from which we derive “Ireland”) and a pun on “hibernus” (meaning “winter,” from which we derive the word “hibernate”). Hiberno-Latin is therefore the specific tradition of Celtic countries—particularly Ireland, Scotland, and the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain)—taking traditional ecclesiastical Latin and forcibly transforming, altering, and glossing words to create a unique glossary of terms. Thus, we have words like “Zabulus,” a transformation of “Diabolus,” or “devil,” and “Prosator,” an amplification of “sator,” or “sower.” The title of the work is frequently translated as “The High Seed-Scatterer,” a metaphor for God.
The poem itself is abecedarian, an aspect which serves serving as a memory aid, an organizational technique, and a means to symbolize the entirety of creation. In the present work, the twenty-three stanzas, one for each letter of the Latin alphabet, are divided into seven larger arcs, referencing the “number of creation,” 7 (the six biblical days of creation plus the day of rest). The poem contains certain elements of symmetry to unify its expansive structure. For instance, the image of divine columns supporting the world is invoked at the midpoint (the fourth, middle arc), creating an axis with symmetrical movements on either side. Likewise, Lucifer’s fall, three movements from the beginning, parallels the descent of Christ (“Xto” in Hiberno-Latin) to earth, three movements from the end.
The first movement declaims the creation of the universe, and the first fall. The opening melody (sung on the pitches A-B-C-D-E) references the poem’s alphabetical nature; this scalar and rhythmic material frequently returns throughout the composition as a unifying force, a reference to a High Creator. This moves into a rhythmically driving section, “Bonos creavit angelos.” Snippets of this stanza’s melody and texture will return each time the poem makes reference to angels and principalities. A haunting movement for solo soprano follows, describing Lucifer’s fall, leading in to a devilish (and devilishly difficult) fugue describing the “ancient” and “terrible” dragon.
The physical world—sun and moon, stars and landscapes, and animals of all sorts—is sung into existence in sumptuous arias for bass and mezzo-soprano, beginning the next arc. However, these blissful moments last only until the second fall, as Adam and Eve succumb to the temptations of the “serpens lubricus,” the “slippery serpent.” This arc ends with dense chromatic clusters representing the cloud of devils, cast down once more.
Water is the subject of the third arc, particularly the waters both above and below the earth. In Hebrew cosmology the floods and seas issued from the waters “below” the earth, while the vault of the heavens secured the rains and storms—the waters “above” the earth. A lush and flowing section opens this arc, followed by a forceful setting decrying the momentary glory of the kings of the present world. These rulers, so the poet says, will ultimately be washed away, crushed by Scylla, Caribdus, and Cocytus, the destructive rocks, floods, and whirlpools of Classical antiquity. This is another common aspect of Hiberno-Latin: the combination of Latin, Hebrew, and Greek vocabulary and imagery. The last section of this movement creates the effect of clouds and rain through guided improvisation in the chorus and orchestra.
The fourth arc is a single stanza, featuring a chant-like refrain alternating with towering chords, representing the columns which hold up the universe. Harmonies emphasizing tritones (the interval which symmetrically bisects the octave) symbolize the movement’s function as the midpoint of the composition.This movement’s mysterious quality is abruptly brought to an end by the announcement of the fifth arc. Beginning with bass and tenor soloists and a men’s chorus, we move from the depths of hell, to the underworld (an obscure reference to the book of Enoch, which tells of dwellers below the earth), to the ecstasies of paradise, extolled by soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists and women’s chorus.
The sixth arc focuses on the theme of judgement, moving us along in the cycle of the creation towards destruction. From here until the end of the work, little new musical material is introduced; rather, existing musical material is re-used and re-stated, motives battling against each other. This continues in the final arc, which begins cryptically with an astrological musing on the heavenly bodies. This metaphor of returning stars is meant to set the stage for the poet’s depiction of the return of Christ. Following, the mournful chords from Adam and Eve’s fall are turned to jubilation in “Ymnorum,” finally leading to a gradual build of intensity that witnesses a return to the opening stanza, bringing creation full circle. The work ends with a fugue on the words “est et erit in secula seculorum infinta,” or “is and shall be for age upon infinite age.” This seemingly endless repetition (in fact, there are twenty-three entrances of the fugal subject, one for each movement) evokes the impression of a never-ending circle, a continues cycle of re-cretion lasting unto eternity.
— Douglas Buchanan
Altus Prosator: Part 1 - I & II
Altus Prosator: Part 1 - III & IV
Altus Prosator: Part 2 - V & VI
Altus Prosator: Part 2 - VII & VIII
Altus Prosator: Part 3 - IX
Altus Prosator: Part 3 - X
Altus Prosator: Part 3 - XI
Altus Prosator: Part 4 - XII
Altus Prosator: Part 5 - XIII & XIV
Altus Prosator: Part 5 - XV
Altus Prosator: Part 6 - XVI-XIX
Altus Prosator: Part 7 - XX
Altus Prosator: Part 7 XXI-XXIII