De profundis : motet for 8-part choir a capella
by Nicholas Routley (2004)
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This motet is an arrangement of a fragment from an opera that has
yet to be completed, my version of the Indian epic,
Mahabharata. The themes of the motet are the love of
homelands by refugees from war, and the love of humanity embodied in the compassionate act of artistic composition. It is in two sections, each of which finishes
with the same music.
The epic culminates in a disastrous war, and this motet is sung by refugees from both sides of that conflict. They long for a homeland that is now barred to them, they long for their unrecoverable past, their lost paradise; but with every memory the the horrors of the war interpose themselves obsessively. They try to forget, but at the same time they fear forgetting, so on their journeys they become storytellers, and come to realise that, while they formerly pursued various occupations, they are now constituted largely by their stories. Just as they need hospitality in terms of food and lodging, their stories need the hospitality that only a writer, a composer can afford - their stories must be written down,
sung, in order to become part of culture; which is to say, in order to save the world from endless cycles of war and destruction. This is the functions of epics like the Iliad, or the
So here the refugees ask Vyasa, the author of the Indian epic (in the sense that Homer is the author of the Iliad) to "take up", to write, their stories. They do this in a slow fugue,
towards the end of the second part of the motet. In the course of this fugue arise references to music across the entire range of the history of Western tonal music, from
Monteverdi through Bach and Beethoven to Wolf, Mahler, and many others. It recalls the suspensions of Monteverdi, the sequences of Bach, the tortured counterpoint of the
Beethoven of the late quartets. This is an image for the complex web of shared and unshared experience which the refugees have of an immensely rich but lost history (and it
is no accident that the ideas of "fugue" and "refugee" are so similar).
The two sections of this motet, De Profundis and SuperFlumina, may be performed separately.
Instrumentation: SSAATTBB choir.
Duration: 26 min.
Contents note: De profundis (12 min.)-- Super flumina Babylonis (14 min.)
Dedication note: Dedicated to Arundhati Roy
First performance: by Sydney Chamber Choir — 18 Sep 04. St James Church, Sydney
Text by Nicholas Routley, after the Vulgate and Hélène Cixous
- In the form/style of: Motets
Performances of this work
18 Sep 04: St James Church, Sydney. Featuring Sydney Chamber Choir.
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