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After the introduction, in which the animals of the world are given their names by Adam, sections introducing the beasts of the land, sea and air are each followed with longer passages devoted to the panther, the whale and the phoenix. These symbolically represent respectively Christ, Satan and the resurrection.
The medieval naturalists had didactic intent—to use the natural world to demonstrate how we can be better Christians—and so each of the three large panels ends with a sermon in which the choir instructs the audience on the lesson to be learnt. In the libretto the specific, and leaden, Christian explication of the original sources is removed to leave poetic but opaque moral instructions, for example the final words of the piece: ‘O man, make your chrysalis, and clothe yourself in the new man.’ The musical setting is extremely varied, from the plainchant-inspired opening, to the chorale-like sermons and the exhilarating chaos of the naming of the animals.
from notes by Bernard Hughes © 2016