A Holiday Cantata for Mezzo-Soprano, SSA choir, piano, flute, violoncello

"The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus", poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), music by Elise Letourneau, was premiered on Sunday December 4, 2016 at Dominion Chalmers United Church in Ottawa ON, with soprano soloist Ellen McAteer, Cantiamo Girls' Choir, conductor Jackie Hawley, pianist Laura Hawley, cellist Joan Harrison, and flutist Elise Letourneau. Duration is approximately 40 minutes.

MP3s: (click title to listen)

Overture & Sleep, Sleep, mine Holy One!

   - instrumental, then for soloist & choir
And art Thou come for saving?

   - for choir

Perchance this sleep

   - for soloist & choir

The slumber of his lips

   - for soloist

We sate among the stalls at Bethlehem

   - for choir

I am not proud

   - for soloist & choir

So, seeing my corruption

   - for soloist & choir

Art Thou a King

   - for choir

Unchildlike shade

   - for choir

The drear sharp tongue of prophecy

   - for soloist

It is enough to bear

   - for soloist & choir

That tear fell not on Thee

   - for soloist & choir

Poem text is below. For further information about obtaining the score, please contact Elise.

The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

'But see, the Virgin blest
Hath laid her babe to rest.’
   MILTON’S Hymn on the Nativity, ll. 237–8.  

   SLEEP, sleep, mine Holy One!

   My flesh, my Lord!—what name? I do not know
A name that seemeth not too high or low,

   Too far from me or Heaven.
My Jesus, that is best! that word being given
By the majestic angel whose command
Was softly as a man’s beseeching said,
When I and all the earth appeared to stand

   In the great overflow
Of light celestial from his wings and head.

   Sleep, sleep, my saving One.
And art thou come for saving, baby-browed
And speechless Being—art Thou come for saving?
The palm that grows beside our door is bowed
By treadings of the low wind from the south,
A restless shadow through the chamber waving;
Upon its bough a bird sings in the sun;
But Thou, with that close slumber on Thy mouth,
Dost seem of wind and sun already weary.
Art come for saving, O my weary One?
Perchance this sleep that shutteth out the dreary
Earth-sounds and motions, opens on Thy soul
High dreams on fire with God;
High songs that make the pathways where they roll
More bright than stars do theirs; and visions new
Of Thine eternal Nature’s old abode.
   Suffer this mother’s kiss,
   Best thing that earthly is,
To glide the music and the glory through,
Nor narrow in Thy dream the broad upliftings
   Of any seraph wing!
Thus, noiseless, thus. Sleep, sleep, my dreaming One!
The slumber of His lips meseems to run
Through my lips to mine heart; to all its shiftings
Of sensual life, bringing contrariousness
In a great calm. I feel I could lie down
As Moses did, and die (1) — and then live most.
I am ’ware of you, heavenly Presences,
That stand with your peculiar light unlost,
Each forehead with a high thought for a crown,
Unsunned i’ the sunshine! I am ’ware. Ye throw
No shade against the wall! How motionless
Ye round me with your living statuary,
While through your whiteness, in and outwardly,
Continual thoughts of God appear to go,
Like light’s soul in itself. I bear, I bear,
To look upon the dropt lids of your eyes.
Though their external shining testifies
To that beatitude within, which were
Enough to blast an eagle at his sun:
I fall not on my sad clay face before ye—
   I look on His. I know
My spirit which dilateth with the woe
   Of His mortality,
   May well contain your glory.
   Yea, drop your lids more low,
Ye are but fellow-worshippers with me!
   Sleep, sleep, my worshipped One!
We sate among the stalls at Bethlehem.
The dumb kine from their fodder turning them,
   Softened their horned faces
   To almost human gazes
   Towards the newly Born:
The simple shepherds from the star-lit brooks
   Brought visionary looks,
As yet in their astonied hearing rung
   The strange sweet-angel tongue:
The magi of the East, in sandals worn,
   Knelt reverent, sweeping round,
With long pale beards their gifts upon the ground.
   The incense, myrrh, and gold,
These baby hands were impotent to hold:
So let all earthlies and celestials wait
   Upon Thy royal state!
   Sleep, sleep, my kingly One!
I am not proud—meek angels, ye invest
New meeknesses to hear such utterance rest
On mortal lips—‘I am not proud’—not proud!
Albeit in my flesh God sent his Son,
Albeit over Him my head is bowed
As others bow before Him, still mine heart
Bows lower than their knees. O centuries,—
That roll, in vision, your futurities
   My future grave athwart—
Whose murmurs seem to reach me while I keep
   Watch o’er this sleep—
Say of me as the Heavenly said, ‘Thou art
The blessedest of women!’—blessedest,
Not holiest, not noblest—no high name,
Whose height misplaced may pierce me like a shame,
When I sit meek in heaven!
                    For me, for me,
God knows that I am feeble like the rest!
I often wandered forth, more child than maiden,
Among the midnight hills of Galilee,
   Whose summits looked heaven-laden;
Listening to silence as it seemed to be
God’s voice, so soft yet strong, so fain to press
Upon my heart as Heaven did on the height,
And waken up its shadows by a light,
And show its vileness by a holiness.
Then I knelt down most silent like the night,
   Too self-renounced for fears,
Raising my small face to the boundless blue
Whose stars did mix and tremble in my tears.
God heard them falling after, with his dew.
So, seeing my corruption, can I see
This Incorruptible now born of me,
This fair new Innocence no sun did chance
To shine on (for even Adam was no child),
Created from my nature all defiled,
This mystery from out mine ignorance,—
Nor feel the blindness, stain, corruption, more
Than others do, or I did heretofore!
Can hands wherein such burden pure has been,
Not open with the cry, ‘Unclean, unclean!’
More oft than any else beneath the skies?
   Ah King, ah Christ, ah son!
The kine, the shepherds, the abaséd wise,
   Must all less lowly wait
   Than I, upon Thy state!
   Sleep, sleep, my kingly One!
Art thou a King, then? Come, His universe,
   Come, crown me Him a King!
Pluck rays from all such stars as never fling
   Their light where fell a curse,
And make a crowning for this kingly brow!—
What is my word? Each empyreal star
   Sits in a sphere afar
   In shining ambuscade:
   The child-brow, crowned by none,
   Keeps its unchildlike shade.
   Sleep, sleep, my crownless One!
Unchildlike shade! No other babe doth wear
An aspect very sorrowful, as Thou.
No small babe-smiles, my watching heart has seen,
To float like speech the speechless lips between;
No dovelike cooing in the golden air,
No quick short joys of leaping babyhood:
   Alas, our earthly good
In heaven thought evil, seems too good for Thee:
   Yet, sleep, my weary One!
And then the drear sharp tongue of prophecy,
With the dread sense of things which shall be done,
Doth smite me inly, like a sword: a sword?
(That ‘smites the Shepherd!’) then, I think aloud
The words ‘despised,’ ‘rejected,’ every word
Recoiling into darkness as I view
   The DARLING on my knee.
Bright angels, move not! lest ye stir the cloud
Betwixt my soul and His futurity?
I must not die, with mother’s work to do.
   And could not live and see.
        It is enough to bear
        This image still and fair,
        This holier in sleep,
        Than a saint at prayer,
        This aspect of a child
        Who never sinned or smiled;
        This Presence in an infant’s face:
        This sadness most like love,
        This love than love more deep,
        This weakness like omnipotence,
        It is so strong to move.
        Awful is this watching place,
        Awful what I see from hence—
        A King, without regalia,
        A God, without the thunder,
        A Child, without the heart for play;
        Ay, a Creator rent asunder
        From His first glory, and cast away
        On His own world, for me alone
        To hold in hands created, crying—SON!
   That tear fell not on THEE,
Beloved, yet thou stirrest in thy slumber!
THOU, stirring not for glad sounds out of number
Which through the vibratory palm-trees run
   From summer wind and bird,
   So quickly hast thou heard
   A tear fall silently?
   Wak’st thou, O loving One?

Note 1. It is a Jewish tradition that Moses died of the kisses of God’s lips.

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The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus