The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp
An oratorio for mixed chorus, soloists and orchestra to a libretto by Scott Cairns.

Duration: 80'
Difficulty: 4/5

  • Prologue
  • Scene I - At the stadium
  • Scene II - A bedroom in a farmhouse outside of Smyrna
  • Scene III - The kitchen in another farmhouse nearby
  • Scene IV - On the road to Smyrna
  • Scene V - At the stadium

An arrangement for chamber orchestra is also available.

Click here to view the score.
Voicing/Instrumentation - Orchestral Version
VOICES

Soloists:
Marcion - Boy Soprano or Children’s Choir
Polycarp - Baritone
Statius Quadratus, the Proconsul - Bass

Choir (SSAATTBB, including the following step-out soloists)
Quintus - Tenor
Germanicus - Tenor
John the Evangelist - Tenor
Nicetes, the Sheriff’s father - Bass

ORCHESTRA

2 Flutes (2nd doubles Piccolo)
2 Oboes (2nd doubles EH)
2 Clarinets (2nd doubles Contra Bass Clarinet)
2 Bassoons (2nd doubles Contra Bassoon)

4 French Horns
2 Trumpets in C
2 Tenor Trombones
Bass Trombone
Tuba

4 Percussion

Harp
Piano

Strings (at least 6, 6, 4, 4, 2)
Voicing/Instrumentation - Chamber Orchestra Version
VOICES

Soloists:
Marcion - Boy Soprano or Children’s Choir
Polycarp - Baritone
Statius Quadratus, the Proconsul - Bass

Choir (SSAATTBB, including the following step-out soloists)
Quintus - Tenor
Germanicus - Tenor
John the Evangelist - Tenor
Nicetes, the Sheriff’s father - Bass

CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Flute (doubles Picc)
Oboe (no EH)
Clarinet (doubles Bass Clar)
Bassoon (no Contra)

Horn
Trumpet
Trombone

Percussion

Piano

Violin I
Violin II
Viola
Cello
Bass
Notes
St. Polycarp was the most prominent Christian leader in Roman Asia during the first half of the second century. He was born circa 69 AD to well-to-do parents. According to tradition, he met and talked with people who had actually known Jesus and had contact with the apostle John. Eventually Polycarp was recognized as leader of the church in Smyrna, now the thriving city of Izmir on the southwestern coast of Turkey. It is said he kissed the chains of Ignatius of Antioch when the latter passed through Smyrna on his way to martyrdom in Rome. The early Christian theologian Irenaeus praises Polycarp for his respect for tradition and his love of sound doctrine, as Polycarp was a staunch defender of orthodoxy against such antagonists as the Marcionites and the Valentinians. The character of his faith is well illustrated by his pastoral letter to the Christians in Philippi, the only extant example of his writing.

Late in life, Polycarp visited Anicetus, the bishop of Rome, to discuss with him the proper date for the celebration of Easter and to defend the custom in use among the churches in Asia. No agreement was reached, but the two men agreed to disagree and parted friends. A year or two later, circa 155 AD, Polycarp was arrested during a pagan festival in Smyrna and burned alive at the age of eighty-six years. When asked by the Roman proconsul to renounce his Lord, Polycarp answered: “Eighty-six years I have served him and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” The dramatic circumstances of Polycarp’s martyrdom are described in a letter written the following year by one Marcion (not the heretic), in the name of the church of Smyrna, to the church of Philomelium. His is the oldest account of Christian martyrdom outside the New Testament. Polycarp was the first “hero of the faith” to be honored with a feast day in the early Christian liturgy.
Text
Libretto by Scott Cairns

Synopsis

The libretto is divided into six sections, a Prologue and five Scenes.

The Prologue opens with the introductory words of Marcion’s letter to the church at Philomelium, after which begins his narration of the events leading to the martyrdom of Polycarp.

Scene I toggles between two separate venues: Polycarp’s study, as he calmly composes a letter of appreciation and encouragement to the people of Philippi, and the arena at Smyrna, echoing with the hoarse cheers and catcalls of a violent crowd during the trial of two Christians, Quintus and Germanicus. The Proconsul presents to each an ultimatum to deny Christ and renounce what he calls the Christian lies. The terrified Quintus assents and is congratulated by the crowd for his “courage” while Germanicus refuses to renounce his faith and instead accepts the death which awaits him. The rabid crowd, insulted and outraged by this show of blasphemous rebellion against the state religion, demands that Polycarp, presumed instigator of the Christian “heresy,” be apprehended.

The second scene is located in a room of a farmhouse outside of the city of Smyrna where Polycarp, at the urging of his followers, has taken refuge. In a vision, he is visited by Angels, a Cloud of Witnesses and St. John the Evangelist who help him to understand and accept the prophetic revelation of his death by fire.

In the third scene, Polycarp has fled to another farmhouse, but is nevertheless captured by the constables sent to arrest him. Imploring the Lord to give him strength, Polycarp surrenders and offers them food and drink. The constables are perplexed to find that the man they were sent to arrest is so old. Before leaving for Smyrna, Polycarp prays for two hours for everyone he has ever known, including his captors.

Scene IV takes place along the road to Smyrna. Polycarp is transferred to a carriage where Nicetes, the father of Herodes, the High Sheriff, tries to persuade him to save himself from death. What harm can there be, Nicetes asks, in pretending to honor Caesar and the other gods if it means he can live to continue serving his own Lord? Instead of convincing Polycarp, Nicetes words serve only to strengthen his resolve and upon arrival at the stadium where the angry mob awaits, Polycarp is ready to meet his destiny.

The fifth and final scene takes place at the stadium where the crowd is restless and barely under control. The Proconsul tries to convince Polycarp to appease the mob by swearing loyalty to Caesar and renouncing Christ. But Polycarp will not be persuaded, saying that the mob has helped him to know that he will never deny his Lord. Affronted, the Proconsul threatens first to bring on the beasts and then, when Polycarp remains unmoved, sentences him to death by fire. The mob becomes hysterical and goes about preparing the stake and pyre upon which Polycarp is to be burnt. When all is ready, Polycarp refuses to be nailed to the stake and, buoyed up by the Angels and Cloud of Witnesses, offers up his prayers. As the pyre is lit, the fire miraculously billows like a sail around the saint. Seeing that the flames are not consuming Polycarp’s body, a soldier is ordered to stab him. As the dagger is thrust in, a dove flies out from Polycarp’s wound and his blood immediately quenches the raging fire. Polycarp dies and is ushered into heaven as the Angels and Cloud of Witnesses invite him to “Taste and See that the Lord is good.”
Commission & Performance History
The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp was co-commissioned by The Arpad Darasz Endowment for Choral Music at the University of South Carolina and First Presbyterian Church, Columbia. The oratorio was premiered on April 18, 2004 at the 1st Presbyterian Church of Columbia, SC, by the University of South Carolina Concert Choir with the First Presbyterian Church Chancel Choir and the Greater Columbia Children’s Choir with Larry Wyatt conducting. The USC Concert Choir subsequently performed the work on tour in Italy at the Chiesa Nuova and St. Peter’s in Rome, and at cathedrals in Viterbo, Arezzo and Verona, as well as at the Varna International Conductors Workshop in Bulgaria.
Reviews & Responses
"Cairns couches the libretto in a powerful way to demonstrate the commitment of Polycarp to Christ, and his martyrdom in the name of Christ. To relate the importance of the current need to embrace Mideast cultural knowledge, the libretto packs a wallop. Redford’s mix of musical styles—sometimes tonal, sometimes polytonal, with rich choral textures and superb orchestrations—is skillfully handled, bringing depth of emotion and fine musical results, which were deeply and enthusiastically received by the 600-plus audience...the end result is a work that has incredible and memorable moments. This is not a work for ordinary resources, but it may well become a masterpiece in the literature for major symphonies." (David Lowry, Free Times, Columbia, SC, April 21–27, 2004)