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Since enjoying 2007 as the Ursula Bethell writer-in-residence at the English Department of the University of Canterbury, I had wanted to thank the University in kind by setting one of Ursula Bethell’s poems. On receiving an invitation from the Christchurch City Choir to compose a work to celebrate the choir’s 20th anniversary I immediately thought of Bethell’s 'At the Lighting of the Lamps', which carries the subtitle in brackets ‘(For Music)’. In the first three cantos of this she describes, in an extended musical metaphor, the setting of the sun over the Southern Alps, the beginnings of a symphony of light as lamps are lit across the Canterbury Plains, and the heavenly effects of 'the music of the spheres' as starlight illuminates the night sky.
Bethell, one of the pioneers of modern New Zealand poetry, was a long-time resident of Cashmere until her death in 1945 and recorded in verse many such sights, and associated reflections, from her elevated vantage point on the hills.
With the tragedy of the 2011 earthquakes and the postponement of many cultural activities, the Christchurch City Choir’s anniversary for celebration passed from the 20th to the 21st. As a result of the earthquakes, Ursula Bethell’s words have assumed new meaning – the lighting of the lamps can now symbolise hope, signs of a city and its surrounds in renewal: ‘from the deepening dark, sudden a new song springs…’.
I have dedicated this work to my muse, Alison, on the occasion of our thirtieth wedding anniversary.
- Philip Norman, 2012.
commissioned in 2010 by the Christchurch City Choir, musical director Brian Law, with funding from Creative New Zealand.
poem by Ursula Bethell