“thrilling to hear it live with forces as fine as the Philharmonic and the Providence Singers”
Channing Gray
Providence Journal
15 October 2016
(Mozart Requiem)


Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978)

Ola Gjeilo

Dark Night of the Soul  (2010)
Luminous Night of the Soul  (2012)

“Mainly, what this piece was really about was just the sheer desire to ... convey a lot of the grace and passion that is so strong and pulsating in the poem.”

— Ola Gjeilo

John of the Cross, born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez in 1541, is unique in Spanish culture: a mystic, philosopher, Carmelite reformer, priest, and canonized saint who is considered to be the foremost mystical poet in the Spanish language. His poem “Dark Night of the Soul” (La noche oscura del alma) consists of eight five-line stanzas that describe the course of the soul’s journey toward a mystical relationship with God. Ola Gjeilo sets three of those stanzas in Dark Night of the Soul and a fourth in Luminous Night of the Soul.

With its house stilled — that is, with its mind, body, and situation on Earth set aside — the soul ventures alone into the dark night in pursuit of knowledge and understanding. This is not a literal evening or scary darkness. The “dark night” suggests a meditative landscape in which the object of the soul’s search — God — may ultimately prove unknowable. Yet, inspired by “love’s urgent longings” and guided by the light “that burned in my heart” — ah, the sheer grace — the soul is drawn to the journey. Although he did not title his poem, John of the Cross wrote two book-length dissertations on the work and the spiritual development of the soul.

This crucifixion sketch by John of the Cross, created sometime between 1574 and 1577 after receiving a vision, inspired a 1951 work by Salvador Dalí.

In Dark Night (2010), composed first, Gjeilo wanted to place the chorus, piano and string quartet on more or less equal footing rather than writing for chorus with accompaniment. He also wanted to convey a sense of the poem’s colorful, passionate spirituality. The chorus and instruments work through contrasting passages, urgent seeking or serene contemplation.

The piece begins with a driving instrumental section in compound meter (7/8) against a long, legato statement of the text from the chorus and a wash of sound on a neutral syllable (Ahhh). There are contemplative passages, mantra-like insistent passages on the “Ah, the grace, ah the sheer grace” text, choral humming, a reprise of the opening 7/8 material, and a pianissimo section that slows to a strikingly calm, barely audible meditative conclusion.

Gjeilo describes Luminous Night (2012) as “the brighter, sunnier sequel to Dark Night of the Soul.” Most of the text, composed by Charles Anthony Silvestri, a frequent collaborator, uses the human impulse toward artistic creation — choirs, silversmiths, poets, potters, actors, authors — as evidence of divine inspiration (“You were the Spirit of all that is art”).

Luminous Night begins with a long solo passage for cello partly, Gjeilo has written, to create “a quiet respite from the saturated washes of sound that are such a big part of Dark Night.” Silvestri’s verses about artistic creation are sung twice, before and after a lyrical instrumental section. (The second altos insert the text “Luminous night, luminous night” in the first statement of the text.)

Gjeilo ends the piece with another stanza from John of the Cross, providing a textual link between the two pieces. His syncopated rhythms for “O night more lovely” and “O night that has united” are reminiscent of the mantra-like “Ah, the sheer grace” section of Dark Night of the Soul.

Dark Night of the Soul
St. John of the Cross (1542–92)

One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
– ah, the sheer grace! –
I went out unseen
my house being now all stilled.

In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
– ah, the sheer grace! –
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

Luminous Night of the Soul
Text by Charles Anthony Silvestri; final verse from St. John of the Cross

Long before music was sung by a choir,
Long before silver was shaped in the fire,
Long before poets inspired the heart,
You were the Spirit of all that is art.

You give the potter the feel of the clay;
You give the actor the right part to play;
You give the author a story to tell;
You are the prayer in the sound of a bell.

Praise to all lovers who feel your desire!
Praise to all music which soars to inspire!
Praise to the wonders of Thy artistry
Our Divine Spirit, all glory to Thee.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.