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Terra Nostra: Program Notes with Texts


Terra Nostra focuses on the relationship between our planet and mankind, how this relationship has shifted over time, and how we can re-establish a harmonious balance. The oratorio is divided into three parts:

Part I: Creation of the World celebrates the birth and beauty of our planet. The oratorio begins with creation myths from India, North America, and Egypt that are integrated into the opening lines of Genesis from the Old Testament. The music surges forth from these creation stories into God’s World by Edna St. Vincent Millay, which describes the world in exuberant and vivid detail. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s On thine own child praises Mother Earth for her role bringing forth all life, while Walt Whitman sings a love song to the planet in Smile O voluptuous cool-breathed earth! Part I ends with A Blade of Grass in which Whitman muses how our planet has been spinning in the heavens for a very long time.

Part II: The Rise of Humanity examines the achievements of mankind, particularly since the dawn of the Industrial Age. Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Locksley Hall sets an auspicious tone that mankind is on the verge of great discoveries. This is followed in short order by Charles Mackay’s Railways 1846, William Ernest Henley’s A Song of Speed, and John Gillespie Magee, Jr.’s High Flight, each of which celebrates a new milestone in technological achievement. In Binsey Poplars, Gerard Manley Hopkins takes note of the effect that these advances are having on the planet, with trees being brought down and landscapes forever changed. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Dirge concludes Part II with a warning that the planet is beginning to sound a grave alarm.

Part III: Searching for Balance questions how we can create more awareness for our planet’s plight, re-establish a deeper connection to it, and find a balance for living within our planet’s resources. Three texts continue the earth’s plea that ended the previous section: Lord Byron’s Darkness speaks of a natural disaster (a volcano) that has blotted out the sun from humanity and the panic that ensues; contemporary poet Esther Iverem’s Earth Screaming gives voice to the modern issues of our changing climate; and William Wordsworth’s The World Is Too Much With Us warns us that we are almost out of time to change our course. Contemporary/agrarian poet Wendell Berry’s The Want of Peace speaks to us at the climax of the oratorio, reminding us that we can find harmony with the planet if we choose to live more simply, and to recall that we ourselves came from the earth. Two Walt Whitman texts (A Child said, What is the grass? and There was a child went forth every day) echo Berry’s thoughts, reminding us that we are of the earth, as is everything that we see on our planet. The oratorio concludes with a reprise of Whitman’s A Blade of Grass from Part I, this time interspersed with an additional Whitman text that sublimely states, “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love…”

My hope in writing this oratorio is to invite audience members to consider how we interact with our planet, and what we can each personally do to keep the planet going for future generations. We are the only stewards Earth has; what can we each do to leave her in better shape than we found her?

Terra Nostra was commissioned by the San Francisco Choral Society and the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir. These groups premiered the piece under the baton of Maestro Robert Geary in November 2015.



Part I: Creation of the World
1. In the Beginning
King James Bible; creation myths from India, North America, and Egypt
In the beginning, in the beginning
The earth was without form, and void;
God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
God saw the light, that it was good.
God divided the light from the darkness.
God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.
In the beginning, in the beginning

Soprano soloist:
This universe existed in the shape of Darkness.
Then the divine Svayambhu appeared, dispelling the darkness.
With a thought, he created the waters, and placed his seed in them.
The seed became a golden egg, in that egg he was born as Brahmán,
the progenitor of the world.

In the beginning, in the beginning

Mezzo-Soprano soloist:

All the earth was flooded with water.
Inkonmi sent animals to dive for dirt at the bottom of the sea.
No animal was able to get any.
At last he sent the Muskrat.
It came up dead, but with dirt in its claws.
Inkonmi took the dirt, and made the earth out of it.

In the beginning, in the beginning

Tenor soloist:

I am he who was formed as Khepri.
When I had formed, only I existed. Everything was formed after me.
Numerous are the forms that came from my mouth.
What I ejected was Shu,
What I spat out was Tefnut.
They separated from me, And my eye followed them through the ages.
They brought me back my eye that had followed them. I wept.
The origin of men was formed from my tears, which came from my eye.


In the beginning, in the beginning
God said
God made
God called
God created
In the beginning, in the beginning
God created the earth.

2. God's World
Edna St. Vincent Millay
O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour!   That gaunt crag
To crush!  To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;   
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

3. On thine own child
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Sacred Goddess, Mother Earth,
Thou from whose immortal bosom
Gods and men and beasts have birth,
Leaf and blade, and bud and blossom,
Breathe thine influence most divine
On thine own child.

If with mists of evening dew
Thou dost nourish these young flowers
Till they grow in scent and hue
Fairest children of the Hours,
Breathe thine influence most divine
On thine own child.

4. Smile O voluptuous cool-breathed earth!
Walt Whitman
Baritone soloist:
Smile O voluptuous cool-breathed earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunsets—earth of the mountains misty top!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbowed earth—rich apple-blossomed earth!
Smile, for your lover comes.
Prodigal, you have given me love—therefore I to you give love.
O unspeakable passionate love!

5. A Blade of Grass
Walt Whitman
Chorus and Children:
A blade of grass is the journeywork of the stars.
Long and long has the grass been growing,
Long and long has the rain been falling,
Long has the globe been rolling round.

Part II: The Rise of Humanity
6. Locksley Hall
Lord Alfred Tennyson
Tenor soloist:
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

Tenor soloist:
Mother-Age help me as when life begun:
Rift the hills, and roll the waters, flash the lightnings, weigh the Sun.
O, I see the crescent promise of my spirit hath not set.
Ancient founts of inspiration well thro’ all my fancy yet.

Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

7. Railways 1846
Charles Mackay
Men of the Chorus:
Blessings on Science, and her handmaid Steam!
They make Utopia only half a dream;
And show the fervent, of capacious souls,
Who watch the ball of Progress as it rolls,
That all as yet completed, or begun,
Is but the dawning that precedes the sun.

Lay down your rails, ye nations, near and far —
Yoke your full trains to Steam's triumphal car;
Link town to town; unite in iron bands
The long-estranged and oft-embattled lands.
Peace, mild-eyed seraph — Knowledge, light divine,
Shall send their messengers by every line.

8. A Song of Speed
William Ernest Henley
Baritone Soloist and the Chorus:
In the Eye of the Lord,
By the Will of the Lord,
In the Hand of the Lord,

Hence the Mercedes!
Look at her. Shapeless?
Unhandsome? Unpaintable?
Yes; but the strength Of seventy-five horses:
Is summed and contained
In her pipes and her cylinders.

She can stop in a foot’s length;
She steers as it were
With a hair you might pluck
From your Mistress’s nape;
Thus the Mercedes
This amazing Mercedes,
Comes, O, she comes,
With Speed—
Speed – Speed!

9. High Flight
John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

10. Binsey Poplars
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Soprano and Mezzo-Soprano soloists:
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and folded rank
Not spared, not one
That swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew-
Hack and rack the growing green!
Even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene. 

11. A Dirge
Percy Bysshe Shelley
All soloists and Chorus:
Rough wind, that moanest loud
Grief too sad for song;
Wild wind, when sullen cloud
Knells all the night long;
Sad storm whose tears are vain, 
Bare woods, whose branches strain,
Deep caves and dreary main,--
Wail, for the world’s wrong! 

Part III: Searching for Balance
12. Darkness
Lord Byron
Mezzo-Soprano soloist and the women of the Chorus:
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings—
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum'd,
And men were gather'd round
To look once more into each other's face;
A fearful hope was all the world contain'd;
Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour
They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks
Extinguish'd with a crash—and all was black.

13. Earth Screaming
Esther Iverem
Tenor and Baritone soloists:
This still mountain night is not still.
It rings loud and shaking like maracas.
Night bugs—locusts, cicadas—are screaming.

There has been no water here.
Falls trickle pitifully down rocks.
Even at night, on this cool, Pennsylvania mountain,
it is too hot.
With the upper atmospheres disappearing,
        stars so close,
        the unknown so near, coming so direct,
        settling on my head to crush my body,
        my foolish species.

Night bugs sound electric
clicking a morse code about omega.
An ancient rain chant rises from the trees.

You must come here.
Come out of the city’s human hum,
to really hear
the earth screaming.

"Earth Screaming" by Esther Iverem, copyright © 1994 by Esther Iverem.
Reprinted with permission of Esther Iverem.

14. The World Is Too Much With Us
William Wordsworth
All soloists and Chorus:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God!

15. The Want of Peace
Wendell Berry
All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman’s silence
receiving the river’s grace,
the gardener’s musing on rows.

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.

"The Want of Peace" by Wendell Berry, copyright © 2012 by Wendell Berry.
Used by permission of Counterpoint Press. All rights reserved.

16. A Child said, What is the grass?
Walt Whitman
Soprano soloist:
A child said, What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is, any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord.
A scented gift and remembrance, designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say, Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

17. There was a child went forth every day
Walt Whitman
There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
The early lilacs, and grass, and white and red morning-glories,
and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter,
and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf,
- all became part of him.

There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
Men and women crowding fast in the streets,
The streets themselves, and the facades of houses, and goods in the windows,
Vehicles, teams, the heavy-plank’d wharves,
The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests,
The strata of clouds, the horizon’s edge,
These became part of that child who went forth every day,
and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.

18. A Blade of Grass/I bequeath myself
Walt Whitman
Chorus and Children:
A blade of grass is the journeywork of the stars.
Long and long has the grass been growing,
Long and long has the rain been falling,
Long has the globe been rolling round.

All soloists:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.