Monday 22 April 2024

The Celestial Stranger: new song cycle inspired by Thomas Traherne's recently discovered manuscript

Joana Carneiro & Gavan Ring
Joana Carneiro & Gavan Ring
Thomas Traherne was a Herefordshire clergyman who died in 1674 aged 38. Known now as a poet to equal his great contemporary religious writers John Donne, George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, his works had been substantially lost and are only recently being rediscovered. His Centuries of Meditation was only rediscovered in 1898, other volumes turned up but the biggest cache of his work was found only as recently as 1997 at Lambeth Palace Library where they were catalogued as anonymous. Amongst these works is a 42-chapter treatise entitled The Kingdom of God which includes The Celestial Stranger, where Traherne imagines a visitor from a distant universe visiting earth and being held in wonder by its riches and beauty.

Musically, Traherne is perhaps best known as the poet for Gerald Finzi's Dies Natalis which draws on three Traherne poems plus text from Centuries of Meditation.

Traherne's The Celestial Stranger is now the inspiration for a song-cycle by composer Stephen McNeff written for tenor Gavan Ring. McNeff describes the cycle as developing "beyond the utopian world as our stranger realises the existence of tyranny and warfare - forcing them to take their leave. An obvious metaphor for what we are doing to the planet, perhaps, but no less relevant of that…". The work is a joint BBC Radio 3 and National Symphony Orchestra (Ireland) commission and the Dublin premiere will be next year.

Stephen McNeff's The Celestial Stranger will be premiered by Gavan Ring and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Joana Carneiro at Hodinott Hall, Cardiff on 16 May 2024 as part of a concert including Gabriel Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande (music from the Maurice Maeterlinck that would inspire Debussy's opera), and Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. Full details from the BBC website.

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