Portinari Nativity , Hugo van der Goes

THE PORTINARI NATIVITY        Cori Martin (2012)

The ruined stable’s open to the air,
a stage on which the rustic scene plays out.
Here stumbling shepherds fix their gaping faces,
their brothers rushing from the hill behind
where heavenly hosts have choired goodwill
to them. More angels, anxious, hover in
the roof or roost below in feathered flocks.
All keep respectful distance, hanging back,
the uncertain parents, too, unmoving.
All awestruck, dumb with wonder, cluster in
a perfect circlet round the little one.
He wears no swaddling clothes; bare skin’s exposed
to winter’s chill. Only his holy glow
keeps him from freezing on the cold stone floor.
No one dares approach him closer there;
but huddled in the dark, the frosty air,
each reaches hands toward the tiny wight
as if to warm them in his little light.


When I received a commission to write an a cappella Christmas piece for the British choir, Ex Cathedra, this beautiful poem written by my sister happened to be sitting in front of me on my cluttered desk, so it was obviously meant to be set to music. Cori’s poem highlights the different worlds represented in this 15th-century painting: the rustic shepherds, the angels, the holy family, and the little glowing baby. I hope my musical setting does her poem justice. I’ve tried to juxtapose earthly music with heavenly music, using one theme that is transformed several times. I’ve sent the piece off to the choir’s conductor Jeffrey Skidmore, and on Monday I am going to hop on a plane for England, meet up with some old friends, and attend the performance at St. John’s Smith Square a week from tonight. Ex Cathedra performs our piece several times in Birmingham, and then tours their Christmas concert to London. Ex Cathedra is a wonderful choral organization which promotes singing, research and education, and I am very much looking forward to meeting them and hearing them sing. A full report will follow!

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One Response to The Portinari Nativity

  1. Ian Alexander says:

    A lovely poem about a beautiful painting. We look forward to hearing the music!

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