MYSTERION XENON for SATB choir. 2011. Commissioned by the Association for Canadian Choral Communities (ACCC) for the 2012 National Youth Choir of Canada. Duration: 5 minutes. Score and parts available through PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.


Mysterion Xenon (Greek for "Strange Mystery") is a setting of the Greek Orthodox Christmas chant by the same title. It was commissioned by conductor Ivars Taurins and the National Youth Choir of Canada for their 2012 concert tour and it was composed in July 2011. One of the most beautiful texts of the Greek Orthodox sacred literature, it has been invading my mind steadily since the first year of my life and, soon afterwards, it became one of my favourite chants which I sang with relish every Christmas Eve at church and at home.

The first phrase of the chant repeats twice in the tenors over bass drones before the entire chant is heard and when this happens, the tenors and the altos sing it in canon at the interval of the fifth, which makes it sound austere, and organum-like. Mellowing this austerity, a child-like refrain in the sopranos on the words (in English) "Christ is born. Amen," creates a cultural-linguistic counterpoint with the age-old chant suggesting a contemporary universality, which is already hinted at by the cosmic grandeur of the Greek texts. This sense of universality is further amplified by (optional) pre-recorded sounds that emanate from a sound system, which consist of mildly processed saghroutah (Middle-Eastern ululations) and Tibetan overtone singing. There is an esoteric Christian tradition that has Jesus as a young man studying under important teachers in Persia, Egypt and as far as India from the time of his bar Mitzvah ceremony in Jerusalem until his ministry began roughly 18 years later in Galilee. (Perhaps the magi who visited him during his birth were among the Master's teachers.) These pre-recorded sounds discreetly commenting on the music of the chant help establish the import of an event that transcends the particulars of a system of organized religion and hints at a universality which is difficult to describe with words or even with musical sounds, although the latter get closer to its essence than the former.

The Texts:

Mysterion ksenon orrho ke paradhokson!
ouranon to spilleon;
thronon Cherubikon tin Par-thenon;
tin phatnin chorion en o aneklithi o achoritos,
Christos, o Theos;
on anymnountes meghalynomen.

I behold a strange and most wonderful mystery:
the cave has become the heavens;
the Virgin the throne of the Cherubim;
the manger a contained space in which
Christ, the uncontainable God, is laid.
Him do we praise and magnify.

Christ is born. Amen.


Premiere performance: May 18 2012, Ottawa, Canada


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