The White Raven

Commission year: 
Grant recipient: 
Coro Allegro

Boston, MA

A work in celebration of the chorus' fifth anniversary. Premiered with works of Rossi, Fine, and Barber.

Program notes, from the Coro Allegro May 2023 performance:

Jubilate Agno, the poem from which Daniel Pinkham selected the majority of the text for The White Raven, was written by English poet, scholar and philosopher Christopher Smart (1722-1771) while he was confined to a series of mental asylums between 1756 and 1763.
Smart’s renowned scholarship notwithstanding, socially, he was a strong-drinking prodigal dandy, good humored cross-dresser and habitual debtor. It was around his 29th year that mounting pressures from his debts coupled with his growing religious mania led to the compromise of his mental health. Smart became known for flights of pontifical ranting and for stopping strangers and acquaintances alike in public assembly, urging them to kneel and pray for him. These outbursts increased in frequency and intensity, ultimately resulting in Smart’s institutionalization to St. Luke's Hospital in 1756, at the age of 34. He was moved from one asylum to the next for the following seven years. It was over the course of these seven years that Smart penned Jubilate Agno.

Dismissed outright from consideration as a deliberate work of poetry, Jubilate Agno appeared to be the desperate contemplations of a man condemned to madness and solitude. With only three exceptions, each page of his manuscript was comprised either entirely of verses beginning with “Let” or verses beginning with “For.” The style and content of the piece served only to baffle and sadden Smart’s contemporaries and critics. The work went unpublished for 180 years.

In The White Raven, Pinkham carefully chooses passages from Jubilate Agno that highlight Smart’s heartfelt experience of God and nature. Immediately in the first movement, we hear Smart identify himself as a beautiful conundrum. He has seen “the White Raven,” and finds himself “a greater curiosity.” Contextually, this verse follows Smart’s declaration that, “For I have adventured myself in the name of the Lord, and he hath mark’d me for his own.” Smart sees his plight as a divine trial and finds himself mysteriously sustained by the knowledge that his infinitely unique life is God’s plan.

CANE role: 
Premiere date: 
Sunday, May 19, 1996