Based on texts by Rumi, Uvavnuk, and Mahavediyakka. Composed for the Young People’s Chorus of New York, and also performed by the Phoenix Quartet (four professional singers).


for SATB with piano / 15 min. (5 min. each)
in three movements
The Open Door / The Song of Uvavnuk / A Vein of Sapphires

Each piece can be performed separately.

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“The Open Door” Performed by the Georgia All-State Intermediate Mixed Chorus

Program Note

Three Mystical Choruses began with a commission from Francisco Nuñez for the Young People’s Chorus of New York, for a short piece for young mixed chorus. I turned to Rumi for a text that might say something arresting to teens. “The Open Door” indeed struck a chord with the singers as with adults, and Mr. Nuñez requested more pieces. So I completed a set of three drawing on texts from other mystics from non-Western traditions.

Born Jala-e-Din Mohammad, the poet known simply as Rumi was a Sufi mystic of disarming simplicity and sophistication. He wrote during the 13th century, in the town of Qonya, in what was then Persia (today, Turkey). His poetry, in both Farsi and Arabic, defines Sufism for most Westerners—that branch of Islam that emphasizes the individual’s meditative search for truth and divinity. (The ecstasy of the “whirling Dervish” is another essential face of Sufism.) I have used a translation by Coleman Barks—himself a renowned poet and regarded as Rumi’s most insightful translator—found in his compilation The Essential Rumi (Harper San Francisco, 1995).

Uvavnuk was a woman of the Iglulik Eskimos who lived during the 19th century. Her transformation into a shaman was recounted decades after her death by a Norwegian explorer who heard the tale. Uvavnuk left her hut one night to relieve herself. A ball of fire plummeted to earth and entered her body. Her consciousness was filled with light and she fainted. When she came to, she went back into the hut singing the song here set to music, and she was regarded as a great shaman, or mystic, from that moment on. I find in “The Song of Uvavnuk” an uncanny parallel to the Magnificat, the song of Mary accepting the Holy Spirit into her body to impregnate her with the Christ. I first encountered the text in John Luther Adams‘ pathbreaking music theatre work, Earth and the Great Weather. I have not been able to trace or attribute the translation, which is based on Knud Rasmussen’s account in Account of the Fifth Thule Expedition, 1921-1924, Volume VII.

Mahadevi was a Hindu mystic of the 12th century, a woman devoted to the cult of Shiva, the destroyer and renewer. Something of a nuisance to her fellow adepts, she took to traveling with no clothes other than her long hair as she proclaimed the unity of the divine with her own soul and with creation itself. Legend has it that when she died she was consumed in a burst of light. Although she was still young, in her twenties at her death, her name often appears with the suffix meaning grandmother, as Mahadeviyakka. The translation used in “A Vein of Sapphires” is by Jane Hirshfield from her collection Women In Praise Of The Sacred (Harper Perennial 1995).

—Theodore Wiprud

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