The concept and even the title for Children of the Light came to me at some point in the late 1990s. I remember one morning walking into the office building where I worked, and having the idea pop into my head. An idea for the future…
What inspired me to finally begin work on it was a conversation over lunch in 2013 with my friend William Hawley, one of the truly remarkable American composers of choral music. I began recalling and discussing the idea; I believe that he said to me “why don’t you just do it?”
I began in December of that year to research and collect possible texts. I had meant to use a few biblical passages, as well as writings from other traditions. There were so many beautiful and inspirational texts to choose from, but when you truly get serious you begin to make difficult choices. I also began to realize that I would have to write some of the texts, to communicate more directly the messages intended. The thematic and musical structure of the work began to take shape and led the way. By January I had come up with the movements and their order, and composed the first chorus. The choice of text was very natural decision: why not start at the beginning, with Genesis 1?
In terms of the accompaniment, I decided quickly that the focus should be on the chorus and soloists. I decided (for now) not to set the work for orchestra, but for piano (four hands), which perhaps makes it approachable for a wider range of choral groups. The instrument can achieve a wonderful fullness and richness of texture, which this work at times requires, with two players. If only one player were used the accompaniment might tend to become too “pianistic,” in the attempt to complement and support the chorus adequately. One may notice, however, that often the piano textures are quite sparse.
The brief introduction, a setting of “Then God said: let there be light…” leads directly to a chorus of praise: Light, Eternal Light. The words, which I wrote, set the rhythm of this movement: “Light, eternal light, you shine through all creation… O blessed, infinite light… light of life: in you all beings are one…. you are the beacon that shows us the way out of darkness.” The movement ends appropriately enough with a Gloria (“glory, glory, gloria!”).
The text of movement III, In Your Light, is an excerpt from Psalm 36. The chorus provides an simple chordal ostinato repeating the Hebrew words “Adonai beh aur ka nor eh aur” (Lord of all, in your light we see light). Over this the baritone soloist chants a beautiful passage that praises the loving-kindness, faithfulness, righteousness, justice and steadfast love of God.
The next movement, My Nature is Fire, for soprano solo, uses an English translation of a prayer of the mystic St. Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380). Suzanne Noffke OP, a noted scholar and, like Catherine, a Dominican sister, generously granted me permission to use her translation of this prayer. A summary: “In your nature, eternal Godhead, I shall come to know my own nature. And what is my nature?… It is fire!… For you are nothing but a fire of love… And you have given humankind a share in this nature… O ungrateful people!… are you not ashamed to cut yourself off from such a noble thing?… O eternal Trinity, my sweet love!… give us light… give us wisdom… strengthen us… let our cloud be dissipated… that we may perfectly know and follow your truth.” For me this is perhaps the most powerful text in the work, in terms of Catherine’s personal theology and sentiments. As imperfectly as we may understand them, words matter.
For the text of the following movement, Hear, O People, I was inspired by the prophet Isaiah: “Hear, O people!… Open you ears… open you eyes… you are all children of the light.” Then the admonition: “chase not after your false gods… honor all your sisters and brothers, for you are all one in the light.”
It is only natural that the people should ask for mercy and guidance. Movement VI is my elaboration on the traditional Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy). “O Lord, show us your compassion, for we wander in darkness, blinded by illusion, lost in our pride, in our desires, our fears… enslaved by racing minds that grasp mindlessly… Guide us, O Lord, from the darkness of our ignorance into the light…”
Light of Heaven is based upon a mantra that I composed in 1996. It grew out my interest in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The text is my very free elaboration on what is known as the “vajra guru” mantra. I composed a version of this movement for a high school choir in western Massachusetts, where I then lived. “Light of heaven, pure and indestructible, beyond arising and ceasing, give us thy blessings, purify, transform, awaken us. Shine through our words, deeds and thoughts, that we may give blessings to others.” It was probably meant to be part of the larger work all along.
And now we are exhorted by the powerful words from the prophet Isaiah: “Arise, shine, for your light has come!… darkness covers the land… but over you the Lord will rise… nations will stream to your light… your gates will always be open… violence will no more be heard in your land… the sun will no more be your light by day…” My intent is that this passage, addressed to the people of Israel some twenty six centuries ago, be interpreted as a song of aspiration and transformation for all the peoples of the world.
The final movement is a reprise of Light, Eternal Light. Sometimes it pays to hear again and repeat what we may have learned. To conclude the Gloria and the work as a whole I added in final words: “Deo Gratias, Thanks be to God!”