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St. Margaret and the Dragon

Link to live recording by Aleksandra Panasik

© 2022, MaLoMaLo Press

for Oboe and Tape with optional Live Electronics

Duration: 7:15 min.

Program Notes:

When asked to write a piece for oboe and electronics, I kept coming back to the story of St. Margaret and the Dragon because I liked the thought of transforming the image of a reed instrument charming a snake into an oboe slaying a dragon. To recount this story briefly, I will focus on elements reflected in my musical choices without concern for alternative tellings. Margaret was born to a pagan priest and his wife in Antioch near the end of the third century. When her mother died soon afterward, a Christian shepherdess became her nurse. In time, she dedicated herself to the Christian faith; her father disowned her and her nurse adopted her. As an attractive young woman, she caught the eye of a Roman provost, who inquired after her name, her social status, and her religion in order to marry her. The provost approved of her name and status as a free woman, but would not accept her as a Christian. Because Margaret would not renounce her faith in order to marry him, the provost imprisoned her and tortured her to try to gain control over her. In the prison, Margaret prayed to see the enemy she must defeat, and she encountered a dragon which swallowed her whole. She punctured and slew it with a cross from the inside, paralleling her resistance to the provost by remaining faithful to Christ alone. After this, her torturers publicly branded her with hot irons and then submerged her in water to cause further pain. In response to her prayer that the water might be her baptism into everlasting life, thunder rolled and a dove came down from heaven to set a golden crown upon her head. As a result, five thousand of the spectators began to follow Christ, so the provost had all of them beheaded, including Margaret.

The opening scenes reflect Margaret’s upbringing in the church and the pastoral lifestyle she received from her adoptive mother. The motif first found in the bells and immediately repeated in the oboe represent the sign of the cross, with a high tone, a low tone, and two tones in the middle using the same pitch but different timbres. To further connect the themes of the church bells and sheep, the oboe improvises on a highly ornamented excerpt from the hymn tune “St. Columba,” often paired with the text, “The King of Love my shepherd is; his goodness faith never.”

The first sound of digital origin enters when the provost expresses in Latin his desire to marry Margaret: “Ego te maritare volo.” The exchange between the oboe and electronics mimics the ensuing dialogue and culminates in the slam of the door to her cell. The increasing oppression of Margaret’s torture and encounter with the dragon can be heard in sounds connected with tyranny and chaos, two major symbolic aspects of dragons and the systems they represent in mythology and the stories of saints. Tyrannical elements include the industrial humdrum of sweatshops, alarm bells demanding immediate attention, and tongue-in-cheek renditions of the tyrannical slogans that the bells introduce:

    Pax Romana: peace for everyone who lives to tell about it.
   Manifest Destiny: revealed by an angel of light at that masquerade - didn’t you hear?
   Liebesraum: thin the population so the living have room to grow fat.
   Mandate of Heaven: when you’re enlightened, you’ll understand. (天命 / Tiānmìng)
   La terreur à l’ordre du jour! (Terror shall be the order of the day!)
   A Collective Regime of Peace and Love

Chaos manifests itself in sounds of destruction and the descent of the tyrannical slogans into the meaningless gibberish of robots.

The oboe begins to reflect some of these chaotic elements, mirroring Margaret’s temptation to renounce Christ. Its long “A” then depicts Margaret centring herself through prayer in the prison and during her fire and water torture. This culminates in a restatement of the cross motif which extinguishes the tyrannical and chaotic noises of the dragon and reflects Margaret’s ability to see the waters of torture as the waters of baptism. These waters become the primary image as the music continues with a crack of thunder and more sounds of water. A distorted and out-of-place restatement of the provost’s proposal motif suggests that Margaret’s spiritual victory and influence overshadowed his inconsequential ability to execute her. The piece ends with St. Margaret following her own Shepherd into paradise, accompanied by the cross and sheep motifs and the ornamented remainder of the hymn: “I nothing lack if I am his and he is mine forever.”

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