Martin Of Tours

Cantata for tenor and baritone soloists, mixed choir, organ and piano duet (1966)

Martin of Tours is a setting of a poem by Thomas Blackburn (1916-1977). It describes an important incident in the life of the fourth-century soldier who became a bishop and a saint. As a young officer, Martin gave half his cloak to a naked beggar in whom he was led to recognise Christ.

The cantata is mainly a dialogue between Martin (tenor) and Christ (baritone). This is introduced and summed up by the Jubilate sung in Latin by the chorus. Martin’s conversion might be a theme for celebration but Blackburn’s poem ends with elements of doubt and uncertainty which he regarded as inseparable from Christianity in the modern world.

The work is dedicated to Hugh Pollard, first Principal of St Martin’s College, Lancaster (now University of Cumbria) and the first performance was given by the BBC Northern Singers, conducted by Stephen Wilkinson and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 20 February 1968. It is one of several collaborations between Dickinson and Thomas Blackburn, which included The Judas Tree (1965).


Jubilate Deo etc

‘You start with a question. It dips beneath
The halfway house of birth and death,
The solemn chatter, the waste of breath,
And if you end on a question mark,
It gives light enough in the breathless dark
For the bread to rise, for the yeast to work.’

‘A lie has virtue. Many a man
Can live with a lie till the colours run
Into a placid union
Of white and black and right and wrong.
Is a lie a lie when it’s sound reason,
A stone to build up your life upon?’

‘If I ask for bread will you give me a stone?’

‘Who are you?’

‘I am the Son of Man.’

‘Where are you?’

‘In the wood, in the stone,
Anywhere, everywhere, anyone.’

Jubilate Deo etc.

‘I am Martin. I do not answer for
A beggar-man at my stable door,
Kitchen leavings, brick-dust, straw!’

‘You are Martin! Go believe in that
But the door in the wall of your hall, keep shut
And snuff out your candle, snuff it out.’

Horse and rider, darkness, rain.
The beggar twitches at Martin’s rein.

‘I ask for bread, will you give me a stone?’

‘This age is dark.’

‘I am the Word.’
And used to darkness, Gallic Lord,
Do my work and cut this cloak with your sword
That two blind men become a third.’

‘I remember how once at Bethany
You made death conscious of how to die,
And tutored the waters of Galilee
As you took on them your un-Roman way:
God of Heaven, I strike, I see!’

God of Heaven, I strike, I see!’
Jubilate Deo etc
The crucifix is a question-mark,
For the bread to rise, for the yeast to work,
Martin, Martin waits in the dark.’

Thomas Blackburn (1916-1977)

© 2008-23 Estate of Peter Dickinson