Northern Lights (Ola Gjeilo, 1978-present)

This article was intended for publication in the August 2018 issue of our parish magazine. However, due to a misunderstanding it missed the deadline. So here it is – exclusively – online.

16691561627_0615fc94a7_bIn January 2017 I had the enormous good fortune to witness the Northern Lights not just once, but on three consecutive nights. I was in Saariselka, Lapland, deep inside the Arctic Circle on a ski trip with a large group from Ski Rossendale. We were there during the winter solstice, during which the sun never rises above the horizon. Instead there is an eery golden glow that migrates from the east to the west during the very short day. The days were clear but bitterly cold – the “warmest” was -28’C! The nights were clear and colder, to the extent that our eyelashes froze.

16873001606_80fd41bc89_bWhen word spread around the hotel that the Lights were displaying, we wrapped up and headed out. It was incredible. Flames of pink, green and white danced across the sky for over 40 minutes in an overwhelming Heavenly pyrotechnic display. It happened again the next night, and the night after that. Attempts at photography were futile. This was to be enjoyed in the moment. We had to be fully present to witness the wonder. We couldn’t believe our luck. We had gone for the snow, but were treated to the Aurora Borealis. Other groups at our hotel had been travelling to Lapland for years in the hope of seeing the Lights, but never had.

A couple of months ago at a Manchester Chorale rehearsal, “Northern Lights” was given out. The text is in Latin, taken from the Song of Solomon:

Pulchra es amica mea,
suavis et decora filia Jerusalem,Pulchra es amica mea,
suavis et decora sicut Jerusalem,
terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata.
Averte oculos tuos a me
quia ipsi me avolare fecerunt.
Thou art beautiful, O my love,
sweet and beautiful daughter of Jerusalem,
Thou art beautiful, O my love,
sweet and comely as Jerusalem,
terrible as an army set in array.
Turn away thy eyes from me,
for they have made me flee away.

In the cover notes, Gjeilo writes that “Northern Lights” is about beauty – a “terrible”, powerful beauty, although the music is quite serene on the surface. This music came to him as he gazed out of an attic window one Christmas, close to Oslo over a wintry lake under the stars, pondering on the text. The “terrible beauty” reminded him of the Aurora Borealis. This is one of the most beautiful natural phenomena that he has ever witnessed. He realised that they have such a powerful, electric quality that must have been both mesmerising and terrifying to people in the past, when no one knew what the lights were, and when munch superstition was attached to these experiences.

It reminds me that it is wholly unnecessary to be in a religious building to have a deeply spiritual experience.

You can listen to a recording of “Northern Lights” here.

Carol P

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