The first version was written in 1981 collectively with André Fischer, then a pupil at the Kantonsschule Zürcher Unterland in Bülach. It is a setting of words from an advent calendar by Max Bolliger. It is scored for baritone soloist (Christophorus), children's chorus and wind orchestra and percussion. The work was performed twice at the Kantonsschule Zürcher Unterland in December 1981.
It tells the story of St. Christopher, a very strong man, who is searching for an ogre who rules the world. Each year, instead of finding the ogre, he finds a child in distress. In the eighth year, still searching, he meets Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. During the night, when Jesus is born, the child speaks to him and tells him he has met the ogre seven times already. Christophorus now knows what the ogre is, but is much less sure of his ability to conquer it.
The characters of Christophorus and the children whom he meets are dressed in costume, but do not act. The Cantata is, however, illustrated by a series of slides which are shown during the whole performance.
In 1982 in Christchurch I revised “Christophorus” and translated the text into English. It was performed for a season before Christmas of that year at the Teachers Training College and a choir of primary school children and college students in the orchestra.
This revised version has double wind, piano, organ and three percussionists, plus the children's chorus.
Premiere: “Christophorus,” composed and conducted by Kit Powell, Teachers College Auditorium, December 8, 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Reviewed by Philip Norman.
The results of Kit Powell's spectacularly productive stay in Switzerland during 1981 have been gradually unfolded in Christchurch during the course of this year. ‘Christophorus’ a cantata for soloists, small orchestra, and primary school choir, is the latest in a long line of first performances of Powell's ‘Swiss’ compositions.
The text for “Christophorus” is based on a legend concerning St Christopher. It is an allegorical tale about St Christopher’s eight-year search to find and kill an ogre he saw in his dreams. Each year in his travels he meets a child in need: seven children with fears of snow, water, darkness, earthquakes, sickness, war, and hunger. St Christopher's search for the ogre is all-consuming. He has no time to stop and help each child. In the eighth year the infant Jesus appears to him in a vision. He realises that the ogre he seeks is the fear of the children.
Kit Powell's realisation of this simple and beautiful story is a powerful and dramatic one. “Christophorus” contains some of the most finely crafted and expressive music of Powell's I have heard. The strength of this composition lies in his depictive orchestral writing. He has an uncanny ear for capturing the sounds and ambience of the natural world in a kaleidoscope of changing textures and timbres. Cascades of woodwind suggest floods of water, organum brass suggest the darkness of the beginning of time, and no facile use of bass drum and timpani suggest the trembles of the Earth. Another strength lies in the passages that overlay vocal textures. A most striking example of this was in the sickness sequence where St Christopher wove a narrative thread in free counterpoint to an incanted prayer in the choir. There were weaknesses in the work, however. The exchanges of recitative between St Christopher and the children captured none of the urgency of the quest for the ogre, while the sequential nature of the text led to a predictable symmetry of design within each of the seven sections. The final eighth section was all the more satisfying for breaking away from this pattern of description- exchange commentary.
The role of St Christopher that Kit Powell has created is a magnificent one — a singer's dream. It is extremely demanding, however, in that it calls for a wide baritone range. Deep, forbidding tones are scored alongside high lyrical passages. The choice of James Baines for this role was indeed fortunate. He has the range. the flexibility, and above all he has the commanding presence needed to dominate the performance of this most exciting cantata.