O Burning Mountain (2010), for mixed voices (6 or 12 performers)

A cappella chamber choir work for sextet or double sextet, with a 13th-century devotional text expressing humility, gratitude, and awe towards all of creation:

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Quick Facts about O Burning Mountain:

  • Completed around 3:00am Thursday May 6, 2010
  • Approximately three minutes in length
  • Written while composer in residence at the Church of St. John the Divine
  • Dedicated to “lucky mud” (Vonnegut, 1963)
    • In loving memory of Reijo Hermanni Marttala, the composer’s father
  • No known performance to date

Detailed Description of O Burning Mountain:

I became interested in setting Mechthild’s text when I found it without music in a Presbyterian hymnal. Showing it to the reverend amused me, as he brusquely dismissed the text as non-Christian nonsense. I was immediately attracted to the long history of the text, the simple and universally applicable expression of gratitude and awe, and its ability to evoke empathy across barriers (or at the very least provoke consideration of one’s fear of the other as in the case of the reverend.)

After a year or two, I was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) with my wife, and I was struck by the similar feelings of universal gratitude in his fictional “Last Rites of the Bokononist Faith”. Vonnegut’s words, in some respect, reflected my personal perspective on the human condition, such that I wanted to set them to music (or at least the words which didn’t use a vocabulary specific to that book). However, being uninterested in obtaining permission to use the text, I decided it would, at the very least, make an excellent funerary reading, and that I should ultimately return to the original text of interest.

It turns out that Mechthild was a 13th-century Roman Catholic mystic living in a semi-monastic community, where she wrote much devotional literature in response to divine revelations she claimed to have experienced, the first being a vision of the Holy Spirit when she was twelve years old. Despite her and I having had very different experiences, with extremely different understandings, the text she wrote, O Burning Mountain, managed to link our common humanity.

This work was my first output in my new position as composer in residence at the Church of St. John the Divine, beginning April 2010. Inspired by a local performance tour by Rajaton, I wrote this work for six a cappella voices, even if such musical forces were unavailable to me. Much support and constructive criticism was gratefully received from mentors and friends Don Neville, Jeff Smallman, Matthew Lawless, and Sean Kim, as well as my loving wife and our newborn daughter.

When presenting the work to the church congregation, I shared some ideas on how we could emotionally respond to our existence, given the certainty of our mortality. The appropriate emotional response, based on reason, is suggested as gratitude (Shelly Kagan, 2007). If you’re given a chocolate bar, that’s great. If you’re given a second chocolate bar, even better. If you don’t get a third, should one be sorrowful, angry or afraid? Not really. Gratitude is the logical response, for however many chocolate bars or years one may get on this fantastically complex Earth.

Text for O Burning Mountain by Mechthild of Magdeburg:

O burning Mountain,

O chosen Sun, O perfect/full Moon,

O fathomless Well, O unattainable Height,

O Clarity beyond all measure,

O Wisdom without end,

O Mercy without limit,

O Strength without resistance,

O Crown beyond all Majesty,

The humblest thing you created sings your praise,


Known Performance History of O Burning Mountain:

  • No performances to date.

Available Files for O Burning Mountain:

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