The inspiration for "Concerning Them Which Are Asleep" came from a sermon delivered in late 1993 by William Wallace, the enormously respected and beloved former minister at Emmanuel. He placed Paul's assurances to the Thessalonians concerning the resurrection, when we shall all meet again, in the context of his own experiences in ministering to AIDS patients. It is a rich-textured, varied, remarkably euphonious six-voice piece which develops a very small number of text-generated musical motives. The close-spaced chords and declamatory character of the opening are the starting point for an exploration of the vast possibilities of textural variation in six-voiced writing. Magical, masterly turns are everywhere to be found: the dark coloration given to already familiar motivic material at "even as others which have no hope," the manifold uses that are made of the motive associated with the sleep of death, the way in which the rhythm associated with "the Lord himself" transforms itself into the voice of the archangel and finally becomes the trumpet of God. Perhaps most beautiful af all are the closing moments, beginning "Then we which are alive," in which one can almost sense a multitude of weightless beings hovering in the air. Ambivalences and ambiguities darken and complicate a great many of Harbison's works, but not this radiant motet, whose beauty of affirmation is as unclouded as the miracle it relates.
©David St. George