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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

The Flight into Egypt, Sacred Ricercar (1986)
Work Notes
The Flight into Egypt is part of the 'Sacred Trilogy'
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
14 Minutes
Soprano, Baritone
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Programme Note
John Harbison The Flight into Egypt, Sacred Ricercar (1986)
Composer Note:
The Flight Into Egypt was composed on commission from the Cantata Singers. The commission allowed me to follow through on musical ideas already in motion, at a time when I was working on a number of projects, (of which this one was the least “practical”). It is my first choral music in five years, and renews an association with the Cantata Singers that dates back to 1969, when I became their Music Director, and continues to the present through many friendships and my close relationship with their remarkable Music Director David Iloose.

I began The Flight on an impulse stemming from a conversation with Craig Smith and Rose Mary Harbison about Christmas texts. Craig Smith mentioned the Christmas season counseling experience of Reverend Al Kershaw at Emmanuel Church, Boston, a time when need, isolation, and anxiety increases. We agreed that the darker side of Christmas needs representation, especially in a time of increasing distance between the privileged and the less fortunate.

I have worked twice before with unedited Bible texts, in a narrative manner favored by Schuetz and Stravinsky, and I’m sure I will again. Without these pieces I would feel that a significant part of what I want to do as a composer would not have a voice. In this piece the subject matter gave rise to musical techniques: a frequent reliance on points of imitation, and the derivation of most of the music from the short motives stated at the outset. These are metaphors for the pre-ordained, inevitable aspects of the story. The harmony is more freely ordered, in the interest of a more flexible and compassionate rendering of the details of the narrative. The most expressive element in the piece is the continuity, which fuses the narrative into one continuous impression, both abstract and highly colored.

When I wrote this piece I didn’t even know of the existence of Schuetz’ incomparable setting of this text, but I should have known that if anyone were to be exploring the shadow-image of Christmas, in times not unlike ours, it would be that composer.

— John Harbison
July 1987

  • Ensemble
    The Cantata Singers and Ensemble
    Roberta Anderson (Soprano), Sanford Sylvan (Baritone)
    David Hoose
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