The people at the shrine in Fatima approached me some years ago about writing a new work to mark the centenary of the apparitions in 2017. It was an exciting commission and proved a journey of discovery for me.
To be honest, I didn’t know much about Fatima, other than the basic elements of the story – the three children, the apparitions, the disbelief among the first who heard their tale, etc. Lourdes was deeper in my psyche, I suppose, simply because I have known many people who have been there.
My wife, Lynne, and I were invited to visit Fatima in May 2015. This proved useful and profoundly moving. We witnessed the vast crowds, the candlelit processions, the gentle, patient hymns of adoration, the pilgrims approaching the shrine chapel on their knees, the beautiful liturgies, the flock of doves released above the crowds, the pealing bells – so much beauty to take in. It proved to be an indispensable trip and allowed me to further my knowledge and research. Most importantly, because I had been asked to write a piece for choir, orchestra and soprano soloist, I was able to consider the various textual possibilities.
The result is The Sun Danced, which will receive its premier in the Basilica at Fatima by the Gulbenkian Orchestra and Choir conducted by Joana Carneiro on October 13. This will be exactly 100 years after the Miracle of the Sun, witnessed by a large crowd gathered near Fatima. Several newspaper reporters were in attendance and took testimony from many people who claimed to have observed extraordinary solar activity. This was the culmination of a series of miraculous events throughout that summer which have made this unremarkable little Portuguese town famous throughout the world, and the focus of an amazing ongoing spiritual phenomenon.
The work uses texts in three languages, Portuguese, Latin and English. I have no Portuguese myself, but I made a study of the simple hymns that are sung at Fatima as a way into the peculiar rhythms and flow of this rich and strange language. Also, fragments of the conversation between the Angel and the children are set in the original tongue – “Do not be afraid; I am the Angel of Peace” etc – as are exclamations heard from the crowd who witnessed the solar miracle.
Mary’s words appear in English – “I have come to ask you to come here for six months on the 13th day of the month, at this same hour. Later I shall say who I am and what I desire.” The Latin texts are from hymns and prayers associated with Fatima (Sanctissimae Trinitatis and Ave, o Theotokos!)
The central section of the music is an orchestral depiction of the sun swirling in the sky – fast, dance-like, rhythmic, with flowing woodwind, rising and falling. The choir exclaims “Olhem para o sol! Milagre!” (“Look at the sun! A miracle!”) Mary is given a soliloquy with words gathered from liturgy: “I received your Word in my Immaculate Heart, I conceived Him in my womb.”
I’ve given the option for the soprano soloist, Elisabete Matos, to sing this passage in English or Portuguese. She is Portuguese herself, but eventually the work should find its home in other countries. The piece will keep the simple bits of the home tongue, but if it moves on to other places the extended sections in Latin and English will be more workable. It has been a huge honour writing this piece for Fatima. Two days after the premier the work moves into the secular arena for a performance at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon. The two audiences will likely be very different!
Sir James MacMillan is a composer and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald
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