¡O llama de amor viva!
(O Flame of Living Love)
–A Mystical Vision
of Saint John of the Cross


SATB or ATBB divisi a cappella 

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Chanticleer, 1986


Chanticleer on "With a Poet's Eye"

Steven Sametz Publications

Program Notes

St. John of the Cross was born Juan de Yepes in 1542 in Fontiveros, a village in the Castile.  He was educated in the Jesuit school, after which he took vows as a Carmelite friar. In 1567, he met Teresa de Jesus, leader of a reform movement towards austerity and contemplation in the Carmelite order.  Joining with the reform movement in 1568, he changed his name to Juan de la Cruz.  The reformed Carmelites were disfavored by the Spanish authorities.  Through various political intrigues, Juan was incarcerated by the faction of the old Carmelite order in 1577.

He was kept in a small, windowless box, not high enough for him to stand erect.  He was to spend over nineteen months in this cell, freezing cold in the winter, airless and stifling in the summer, indexed with lice and plagues by dysentery.  Each day, he was taken to the refectory and subjected to circumflagellation: the monks encircled him as he knelt on the floor, beating him with leather whips.  His shoulders were crippled for life.

And one night, from outside his cell he heard a popular song–a villancico–being sung from the street.

Muerome de amores                   I am dying of love
Carillo, ¿que hare?                       My darling, what shall I do?
–¡che te mueras, alahe!               You shall die, alas!

San Juan was carried into ecstasy by this simple love lyric.  From that time, he began to compose poems in his cell.  “Poetry,” he was to write later, was “the only means of expressing the ineffable.”

In August of 1578, San Juan had a dream in which the Virgin Mary appeared to him, commanding him to escape and promising her aid.  San Juan acted on this and in the dead of night, he pried open the hinges of his cell door, stepped over the sleeping guards, lowered himself down a balcony, and climbed the high walls of the city.

After his escape–which he forever afterward attributed to the assistance promised him in his dream–San Juan began to write down the poems he had composed in his confinement.  He wrote only eleven poems, bit supplemented these with voluminous commentaries.  His poems may all be read on one level as love lyrics; on another level, they are allegories of divine love.

In setting ¡O llama de amor viva!, I tried to express the episode of imprisonment in St. John’s life.  Opening with a  villancico-like setting of the three line poem which St. John heard from his cell, it moves to a torture section depicting the circumflagellation; the villancico reappears, yielding to a soothing, polyrhythmic fantasia evoking the vision of the Blessed Virgin; this inspires the setting of the actual poem, which is the body of the work.  In chiastic form, the piece then reverts on itself, leading back through the music of the vision, a brief reminder of the torture, and finally back to the villancico.  The whole piece has taken place in the imagination of St. John and he will soon effect his escape.

Underlying the diversity presented in the piece, there is a single unifying element in the chant, “Victimae Paschali Laudes.”  One of the most ancient chants in the western literature, it is the sequence for Easter Sunday.  As such, it is a triumphant expression of faith.  The chant, while not obviously apparent in much of the piece, forms the underlying thread through the work.  It is integrated into the  villancico; appears in the second section as a hidden motive, and forms the basis of the fantasia portraying the ecstatic vision.  And as a final affirmation, it is heard in its most direct form to close the work.

¡O llama de amor viva! (A Mystical Vision of Saint John of the Cross) was composed for Chanticleer in 1985. The actual poem by St. John begins with “¡O llama de amor viva!”

Text / translation

¡Oh llama de amor viva
que tiernamente hieres
de mi alma en el más profundo centro!
Pues ya no eres esquiva
acaba ya si quieres,
¡rompe la tela de este dulce encuentro!

¡Oh cauterio süave!
¡Oh regalada llaga!
¡Oh mano blanda! ¡Oh toque delicado
que a vida eterna sabe
y toda deuda paga!
Matando, muerte en vida has trocado.

¡Oh lámparas de fuego
en cuyos resplandores
las profundas cavernas del sentido,
que estaba oscuro y ciego,
con estraños primores
color y luz dan junto a su querido!

¡Cuán manso y amoroso
recuerdas en mi seno
donde secretamente solo moras,
y en tu aspirar sabroso
de bien y gloria lleno,
cuán delicadamente me enamoras!

–San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross)
born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez (1542-1591)


Oh Love’s living flame,
Tenderly you wound
My soul’s deepest center!
Since you no longer evade me
Will you please at last consummate:
Rend the veil of this sweet encounter! 

“Oh cautery so tender!
Oh pampered wound!
Oh soft hand! Oh touch so delicately strange,
Tasting of eternal life
And canceling all debts!
Killing, death into life you change!

“Oh lamps of fiery lure,
In whose shining transparence
The deep cavern of the senses,
Blind and obscure,
Warmth and light, with strange flares,
Gives with the lover’s caresses! 

“How tame and loving
Your memory rises in my breast,

Where secretly only you live,
And in your fragrant breathing,
Full of goodness and grace,
How delicately in love you make me feel!”