At about 12:52p today, 12/20, I’ll play “The Christmas Star,” from John Adams’ nativity oratorio El Nino. The texts Adams uses–in Spanish, Latin, and English–are taken from poems by a diverse array poets ancient to modern and also include passages from the Bible, The New Testament Apocrypha, and The Wakefield Mystery Plays.
“The Christmas Star,” is a fiery poem by the Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral (1899-1957), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, the first Latin American writer to be so honored.
The late program annotator, Michael Steinberg, describes Adams’ melding of music and words as follows: “In swift-moving verse [Mistral] evokes the mixed ecstasy and pain of religious revelation. Adams conflates Mistral’s verse with rapturous lines, O quam preciosa (Oh, how precious), by the twelfth-century mystic and writer, Hildegard von Bingen. The music descends from the great crest it has reached, and the last word we hear is “paradisum”: “The tender shoot which is the Virgin’s son has opened Paradise.”
Here’s the poem, by Gabriela Mistral. I hope you enjoy the music this afternoon.
The Christmas Star
A little girl
she caught and carries a star.
She goes flying, making the plants
and animals she passes
bend with fire.
Her hands already sizzle,
she tires, wavers, stumbles,
and falls headlong,
but she gets right up with it again.
Her hands don’t burn away,
nor does the star break apart,
although her face, arms,
chest and hair are on fire.
She burns down to her waist.
People shout at her
and she won’t let it go;
her hands are covered with burns
but she won’t release the star.
Oh how she sows its seeds
as it hums and flies.
They try to take it away–
but how can she livewithout her star?
It didn’t simply fall–it didn’t.
It remained without her,
and now she runs without a body,
changed, transformed into ashes.
The road catches fire
and our braids burn,
and now we all receive her
because the entire Earth is burning.
Translated by Maria Jacketti (as used in El Nino, by John Adams)