Long walks are not only good for the health they are useful — and economic — palliatives for loneliness. The summer of 1975 was my first summer in graduate school in Cincinnati and I found myself spending the long, late afternoons, after classes were done and before I had to return to the books, walking through the campus and its adjoining neighborhoods and business districts, a few leafy and lovely, but more seedy and tough.
On one such walk I found myself in the library of the art school. As I browsed the stacks I came across a particularly beautiful book on the medieval monasteries of France. I slowly turned its pages as I stood at the stack, not bothering to find a desk (I still today vividly remember the slant of the late afternoon sun coming through tall windows to the south), and eventually came across page devoted to the “Plan of St. Gall.” It was an entry on a 9th-century plan of a monastery accompanied with a modern model of what the plan would have looked like built as well as several details of the manuscript. One of those details was of the monastery graveyard, located in a wall enclosure at the manuscript’s top. At its center was a cross around which were drawn stylized trees and an inscription.
The reproduction was small and the Latin text faint, but I was struck by the plan and by the translation: “Among all the woods, the most sacred is the cross, fragrant with the perfume of eternal salvation.” The late afternoon, the beauty of the book, the depth of the sentiment, my own isolation, all combined to deeply move me. I quickly jotted down what I could make-out of the Latin text and the published translation and over the next several days composed the setting. I was much enamored with the music of Krzysztof Penderecki and György Ligeti at the time and the motet’s slow, long dissonances showed their influence, although written for much smaller forces than was typical of their music at the time.
The motet was put away and lay forgotten for decades. By the time I found it again not only was my Latin much better (and my knowledge of medieval Latin abbreviations) but this most famous of medieval ground plans had a beautiful presence on the web where the manuscript could be studied closely and in detail (http://www.stgallplan.org/). There I discovered the full (and comprehensible) Latin original and while I considered re-writing the motet to accommodate the full Latin text I decided not to, letting the motet’s Latin text remain a ruin — mutilated but still a recognizable image of itself, just as the manuscript is a ruin as is too western Christianity. A ruin within a ruin, laying to rest quietly and gently what was once beautiful and new and gave certitude and peace and help from pain, buried in hope of the Resurrection. —- Mike Linton