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The King's Singers present a disc of some of their best and most requested repertoire.
We are all shaped, perhaps unconsciously, by the landscape and time in which we live. This evocative and spiritual programme, which contains five King's Singers commissions, explores the links between human life and it's surroundings through the different personal languages of poets and composers.
Scenes in America Deserta was commissioned by the King’s Singers from John McCabe (b1939) in 1986. It is the sixth in a series of works inspired by desert country in various parts of the world, written for different instruments or ensembles. The work is continuous, but falls into clearly defined sections; the main aim of the music is to convey an idea of the variety and fascination of desert country. Although there are few pictorial “effects”, some of the colouristic textures produced by some of the syllables are used as an integral part of the musical thinking.
Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) is acknowledged today as one of the most important figures in 20th-century Estonian choral music, and the solid foundation on which Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis established themselves. Like Kodály in Hungary he was an avid collector of his native folksong. He used it to colour his own music and to establish the tradition of large-scale choral writing now beloved of Estonian composers. His desire to create a unique Estonian sound caused him to be labelled a ‘bourgeois nationalist’ by the Soviet authorities, who removed him from his position as a professor at the Tallinn conservatory and forced him to return to Haapsalu, the small town of his birth.
ln writing his Taaveti laulud (Psalms of David), Kreek was determined to convey the depth of his religious fervour without compromising his devotion to Estonian folk music. Not surprisingly, therefore, he opted to set the psalms in his native Estonian, and combine the rich and stately homophonic style of Eastern European sacred music with the beautiful and quirky melodies that give us a real feeling for his home land.
Remembered love (Omiizuru koi) was commissioned by the King’s Singers from the American composer Jackson Hill (b1941), and first performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center in February 2004. The text is derived from two poems by Hitomaro (c.662-710) that appear in the seventh-century Japanese anthology the Manyôshû. The composition employs a number of sonic and stylistic devices derived from Japanese traditional music: pentatonic harmony, vocal slides, portamentos, and ornamentation derived from Buddhist chant and ancient Japanese court music, as well as textures that define a sense of stasis and suspended time. The composer treats the syllables of Japanese text at times as abstract sounds and at other times as highly inflected symbols and visual images, subject to elaborate, descriptive word-painting to express the words of the poem.
Remembered love is one of a series of Jackson Hill’s Japanese-language compositions for vocal ensemble.
Peter Maxwell Davies (b1934) has been the Master of the Queen’s Music since 2004. He has lived for many years in Orkney, a region of islands off the northernmost tip of Scotland, where the landscape and solitude have had an undoubted effect on his music. For this King’s Singers commission he turned to the writings of the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown, sometimes known as the Bard of Orkney, and composed the companion pieces Sea Runes and House of Winter, which were both premiered in 1986. House of Winter is a setting of four Christmas poems. The music is continuous, and though scored for unaccompanied voices, it becomes almost orchestral in evocation of the calm, frozen stillness of an Orkney winter on the one hand, and the wildness of a December storm on the other.
Rakastava, by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), sets three lyrical poems from the Kanteletar, a huge collection of folk poetry collated by scholar-physician Elias Lönnrot between 1840-41 which made a decisive contribution to the awakening of national consciousness at a time when Finland was still a grand duchy of Russia. Composed in 1893 Sibelius submitted Rakastava for a competition arranged by the Helsinki University Chorus. It came second, the jury perhaps being startled by its modernity. The first performance in 1894 was in an arrangement for male chorus and strings. Sibelius arranged it again in 1898 for mixed chorus, and in 1911-12 he revised it completely for strings, triangle and timpani, in which form it is best known. The critics at the first performance were quick to recognise the mastery of this earthy and erotic picture of young love. The first movement is elegiac in mood and has the flavour of a folksong. The second movement breathes a restrained yet intense joy and is surprisingly innovative in texture. The final movement is about the sorrow of parting and refers back thematically to the first. The work dies away in a coda in which the two lovers are engulfed by the sad harmonies of the summer night.
Like Sibelius in Finland, Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) helped shape a nation’s musical consciousness. He was tireless in his search for Hungarian folksong. This arrangement of the Northern Hungarian song Esti Dal, which first appeared in 1938, has achieved extraordinary popularity and has been translated into many languages, including Chinese and Hebrew. This is hardly a surprise given the universal theme; a soldier prays for divine protection to see him through another night in a foreign land. Esti Dal is a favourite encore in King’s Singers church concerts, with its still harmonic structure and haunting solo.
Composed by former King’s Singer Bob Chilcott (b1955) Even such is time is one part of a set of the same name that highlights the passing of time. As poet, Sir Walter Raleigh is resigned to his impending morning execution, but optimistic to the last. The set was written for the Girl Choristers of Salisbury Cathedral and the King’s Singers, and first performed in 1993. It was subsequently performed at the last concert of the King’s Singers 25th anniversary season. Even such is time is dedicated to Simon Carrington and Alastair Hume, two founders of the group who retired following that concert.
The King's Singers © 2006
Their approaches are necessarily diverse, not merely because we have personalities ranging in time from the 7th-century Japanese poet Hitomaro and the Elizabethan Walter Raleigh to the contemporary George Mackay Brown and Peter Reyner Banham, from Sibelius and Kodály to the American Jackson Hill and several 20th-century British composers. Each composer has a different emphasis, but certain facets of those main concerns are present, albeit sometimes in the background.
In Scenes in America Deserta, the inspiration was of course Reyner Banham’s vivid response to his beloved desert landscapes of the American South-West, which triggered in me considerations both of the colours and textures he conveys, and the timelessness of the subject matter. The very first musical image to occur to me was the extraordinary deep blues and purples of the canyons in the light of sunset, and the need for harmonies to convey this atmosphere. Even though this is an “environmental” piece, and could (mistakenly) be taken for mere (or pure) tone-painting, the reference to “White-legged figures of gods” spilling water from gourds reminds one of the close connection for the Pueblo Indians between the forces of nature, the basic essentials of living, and the religious beliefs they held, beliefs often expressed through vigorous dance. And the “utter blue” of the text seems to me to epitomise timelessness.
This work reflects, by returning at the close to the opening mood and material, the essential circularity of life on earth, a profound concern of Eastern philosophies, and something explored in Jackson Hill’s Remembered love. Hill has devoted many years to his love of Japan and Japanese culture, reflected not only in this work but in many others including instrumental and orchestral pieces. Here he reconciles brilliantly the worlds of a contemporary diatonic style and the strong influence of Japanese music, both in technical devices and in rhythm. The sense of heavy, suspended time, expressed partly through memory (an essential ingredient of our understanding of time in many ways), is an important element in this piece. The theme of human loneliness mirrored by the search of a bird for its lost mate (i.e. the poet and his lost love) is a universal one—think of the Whitman/Delius Sea Drift. Allied to this is the sense of the passage of time, and the all-pervading natural world (both in the behaviour of the birds and the passage from night to morning), adding to a piece whose referential richness perfectly exemplifies the variety yet unity of the programme as a whole. Dreams are an important part of the world of many of these composers and poets—in Hill’s piece, the dreams are unfulfilled, gone for ever. Memory is also a strongly related element—through the contemplation of the Japanese landscape and natural world, man seems lost in the past, an association of landscape with memory and time. And the “endless round of departure and return” perfectly expresses the Eastern sense of life’s circularity.
Where Hill takes inspiration from aspects of Japanese music, Sibelius, Kreek and Kodály derive much directly from folk music itself. Sibelius was profoundly influenced both by Finnish folk music and by the speech-patterns of the Finnish language, and Kreek’s music has been similarly imbued with the spirit of his native Estonia. This is true both of the melodic melismas and of the rhythmic patterns. It enables them to create music that by reflecting the natural music of the people relates directly to their landscape. I have a theory, unproven and untested (and probably only intuitive), that there is a close relationship between language and landscape, and even climate. Sibelius’s texts are taken from folk poetry, elegiac and earthy at the same time, with, in the second chorus, an astonishing, weightless remembrance of the landscape in which the beloved once walked, a movement filled with “restrained yet intense joy” (as Tawaststjerna describes it). In the third movement, the lovers are “engulfed by the sad harmonies of the still summer night” (Tawaststjerna again)—the ending, a slower revisitation of the opening of that movement, is like a recollection. Once again, harmonies are used to convey the heaviness of the human emotion and equate it with the atmosphere of the night. Kreek’s musical world is recognisably the same as Sibelius’s. The textual key to his work is the phrase “the Lord, maker of heaven and earth”, while in “Happy is the Man”, he expresses very successfully the same joyous lightness of heart that Sibelius finds in the second of his choruses.
Night is a source of eternal fascination for composers. In Kodály’s folk song setting Esti Dal, a prayer for sleep in the forest, the woods, night, dreams and faith interact subtly upon one another through the words. By using a counter-tenor solo, Kodály turns the song almost into a miniature drama, albeit a reflective and sombre one. Bob Chilcott has set Walter Raleigh’s famous prayer, written on the eve of his execution, which explicitly deals with time and faith, while Donne’s religious sensibility links his faith with both landscape and time. He equates the natural world with man’s condition (“wintered and frozen”), and Bennett characteristically reflects both this and the ripeness of the fruit with evocative harmonies. In House of Winter, Peter Maxwell Davies, drawing upon George Mackay Brown’s richly referential, but always concise, text, conveys vividly such concepts as a snowflake, a frozen bird, a star (with in particular a memorably startling harmony towards the end of the first part), the storm (in which whistling is one of the few moments of onomatopoeia in the album), and above all the bleakness—of “a thin child lost in the snow”, for instance. The storm is a passage of rhythmic vitality but never such as will overbalance the essentially reflective tone of the work as a whole, and it remains within the self-enclosed boundaries of both text and music. The bleakness expressed during the piece is achieved by changes from rich to austere harmonies, counterpoint narrowing down to an apparently dissonant pair of notes, dynamic variety, and the spacing of the chords. Underlying all this, a sense of the mystery of faith, the passage of the seasons, human loneliness and companionship. In this piece, as in most of the others, all the thematic strands of the collection are joined together.
Bob Chilcott © 2006