Stephen Bulla's ‘Caelum Corona' (‘Crown of Heaven') portrays, in sound, a Christian's walk in faith, intended metaphorically via a musical narrative reminiscent of the early church pilgrims, their struggles and triumphs. The composer initially evokes the atmosphere of Rome at the time of St. Paul and other martyrs, thus the Latin title. Bulla marks his imaginative tone poem with dark, brooding music in the first two of three parts, in each of which he has embedded an appropriate hymn or song reference as thematic material.
The first of these sounds in a minor key following a symphonic exposition made up primarily of fanfare-like motives, the music at times quite harsh and abrasive. The song is Paul's statement of exuberant faith (2 Timothy 1:12) in the midst of prison and persecution: ‘For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I've committed unto him against that day.'
More challenging, aggressive music returns until a further point of reflection on Christ's sacrifice is reached. The music graphically evokes the barren landscape of Golgatha, the horror of the crucifixion, including stark wind sounds, a loss of stability via eerie, dissonant chord clusters, and even the nails being driven into Christ's body. The Baritones and then Flugel Horn softly play ‘He died of a broken heart.'
Yet the Christian life, despite its perils - both at the time of Paul and now - is a victorious life, and the composer resolves the tensions of the work in a scintillating finale, a brilliant setting of the old song about spiritual warfare and the ultimate triumph of Christ the King: ‘Victory for me!' (T.B. 841). The chorus of that tune proclaims: ‘No retreating, hell defeating, shoulder to shoulder we stand; God look down, with glory crown our conq'ring band.' That crowning is the same one sought and claimed by St. Paul (2 Timothy 4:8): ‘Now there is in store for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that day, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.'
Believers look forward to participating in the final coronation of their Saviour - King of Kings and Lord of Lords - while humbly desiring their own ‘crown of heaven.'