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Founded in 1926, the Choir of the West is the leading choral ensemble of the Department of Music at Pacific Lutheran University, located in Tacoma, Washington. This recording celebrates the music of Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds.
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
In the climax of the song I used my most rich harmonic color, although the text there seemed to not necessarily call for that:
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
With this seemingly incompatible relationship of text and music, I agreed to Sara’s idea about the importance to emphasize the endless existence of nature, even if there is war somewhere in the world.
The new moon (2012)
The day had its share of worries. The moon seems somewhat cold, distant, and pale, but is it lonely? Wrapped in a beautiful cloak, it sometimes attracts my gaze as if asking for attention. There are times when I feel like reaching higher, up where the stars are, but when the sky is but a sea of clouds, the company of moonlight is enough. In this spirit, I wrote the music for Sara Teasdale’s poem 'The new moon'.
Long Road (2010)
The poet Paulīna Bārda lived a long life, to the age of 93, but her husband, Fricis Bārda, also a poet, died young. It seems to me that Paulīna’s poem Long Road is about them meeting (or not meeting) in deep dark nights as she gazes into the starry beyond. The eight-bar melody came to me rather quickly, but then I reached a dead end: the melodic line would not evolve any further and there also was too little text, just two little quatrains. Although I added another quatrain, which I borrowed from a different poem by Paulīna Bārda, it was not enough for a six-minute composition. So I opted to paint the starry heavens described by Paulīna without any words whatsoever, just as a vocalise. Colours deepened, a more mystical dimension broke through, and together they lit up the long way to the starry expanse. It is a very sad story, yet one filled with love.
Northern Lights and Rivers of light (2013)
Northern Lights was commissioned by the Pacific Lutheran University Choir of the West and their conductor Richard Nance. A particular Latvian folksong and writings about the Aurora Borealis by Arctic explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Charles Francis Hall formed the inspiration for the work. I had thought to use some poetry about the Aurora, but such poems seemed to me less inspiring and written in a too beautiful a manner compared to the dramatic descriptions by the explorers. Richard had kindly invited me to attend the premiere at the prestigious American Choral Directors Association National Conference, held in Dallas in 2013. This would be my first time to attend this enormous biennial event, attended by some 5000 professional musicians—choristers, conductors, composers, publishers and producers! Before the premiere I was going to hear my song only once—in the choir’s last rehearsal there, and I was very nervous. But as I entered the church where I heard them already rehearsing my song, peace came into my heart immediately because they sounded so good! Their beautiful individual voices were united in an excellent ensemble. The story of the song was vividly present. These things made the Northern Lights premiere truly magical. It was a huge success; after the ACDA I returned home with six new commissions!
Late in 2013, Rivers of light was composed for Artūrs Ancāns’ Swedbank Choir, a Latvian ensemble. In this work I quoted two Saami joiks, special Saami folksongs, and again writings of the two explorers. Why was I using the folksongs? Technically it’s a compositional approach related to the New Folklore Wave. But emotionally, their authentic oldness adds a mystical color to the song. I admire such cultural heritage of our previous generations. When I myself was traveling to the very North in search of aurora stories and meeting with some great storytellers in preparation for composing my Nordic Light Symphony, I discovered that I had come some 100 years late because the folksongs, legends of those nations were unfortunately gone from the spoken language and were mostly found in books.
A comment about the writings of the two explorers I have used in both songs: in the University Library in Cambridge, UK where I was artist in residency at Trinity College from 2011-2013, I read some 150 books about the Northern Lights and among them I found Nansen’s and Hall’s ship journal writings. Usually around 7-8 pm they would witness the beginning of the aurora appearing faintly in the northern sky. As they kept watching it becoming more live and turning the sky into fire, their writings turned into something beautiful as if they were poets! As I was reading their notes and composing them into my music I had a feeling as if we all three were standing on their ships and watching the same sky the same night. The handwritten texts resembled my pencil sketches on the sheet paper on my piano. At those magical moments the distance of 120-150 years between us shortened to minutes.
Only in sleep (2010)
Only in sleep was composed for Kent Hatteberg’s University of Louisville Collegiate Chorale and Cardinal Singers. I knew that Kent’s choirs had already performed my A drop in the ocean and Long Road, both scores very demanding for highest technical performance qualities. I was trying to decide if I should continue the same path of writing another competition-type piece for them? I decided not, because in my professional work I always had loved and needed a change or shift in writing style and imagination. And sometimes the most powerfully moving music is also the most simple. I found Sara Teasdale’s beautiful poem, which in its simplicity and honesty perfectly says what it needs to say. I closed my eyes and started to improvise Sara’s lyrics on my piano, and soon the tune was born and I enwrapped it into 8-part harmony like a very dear baby being swaddled in softest blanket.
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright
Romeo can’t take his eyes off the pretty Juliet. Mesmerized, his thoughts keep flitting and sparking. In keeping with the Shakespearian mood, I stylized this composition so as to evoke Renaissance folk music using dance rhythms beat out with a tambourine. And only as the line 'For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night' is reached at the end of the opus, I allow myself to thicken the colors of the harmony, the better to express the effect of the experience on Romeo’s soul. The whistling by one of the singers—it is Romeo himself, a moment later still contemplating his encounter with Juliet.
A soldier’s mother’s lullaby (2015)
My grandma’s brother was a soldier and was lost in WWII. They didn’t know where and when he died, and when his death was announced, in the family there were desperate cries like those described so powerfully by Wilfred Owen in his Anthem for doomed youth. But there also were softly whispered prayers like those depicted in A soldier’s mother’s lullaby by Jack Whalen.
In this setting, commissioned by Kent Hatterberg for the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers, I wanted to use Owen’s graphic lyrics—where soldiers 'die as cattle'—contrasted with something gentle, dear and very personal. As I kept thinking about what that might be, in the Library of Congress I finally found an old manuscript from 1918 of A soldier’s mother’s lullaby—a song by Peter C Caporossi with lyrics by Jack Whalen. That was it! The second half of Jack’s poem brought me to tears—a simple, fragile story about the mother of a soldier, humming her lullaby and dreaming of the days long ago when her son was sleeping in his cradle. I imagined the voices of the mother and the soldier echoing each other from thousands of miles away. The next lyrics, 'And as the wind blows' inspired me to paint the flow of time, years, and memories in music for double chorus, in constantly shifting, overlapping harmony. At the very end of the song I gradually switched the perspective from their home to a picture or imagined place in heaven where millions of such lullabies meet.
Spring rain (2017)
As I was composing Spring rain late at night, there was no rain, nor storm outside of our house—only a peaceful night with the world having gone into its sleep. On my piano there was Teasdale’s poem facing me, and as I was improvising it line by line, gradually the rain and storm, and everything in her poem started to rise in my mind into a three-dimensional visualization. A few moments later there were 'passing motor busses swaying, the street was a river of rain, and with the wild spring rain and thunder my heart was wild and gay'. Oh, the music came so quickly! In the following days, of course, I kept polishing every bar and harmony until I was satisfied with the song. But somehow the poem’s aching melancholy (as a rainy day can trigger some memories) was present all the time. I think Teasdale’s Spring rain is very much about how time can tick away, when people need it to stand still.
The charm of the poetry of American author Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) hides in a pure, clear romanticism, which is painted with the brush strokes of simple language. Her poem Evening carried me off on wings of birds and brought me to a place that I have only seen in my imagination—the green foot of a mountain on the shore of the sea, a blue sky with a few streaks of white, the sunset and a self-satisfied warm wind that drifts into sleep. Birds sing sweetly, and, oh, there is beautifully scented air … Summer. Stepping over the threshold of one evening.
Brady Allred and the Salt Lake Choral Artists commissioned a new work in 2012. I remember being out in the country in my native town in Latvia to celebrate Christmas with my parents. After dinner I went out to have a silent walk in cold winter night. I was impressed by the view in the sky—the stars were so bright and spoke to me in a special way. I couldn’t name it, but I did catch the feeling of an added dimension. Later, while washing dishes I kept thinking about that feeling. I decided to try to play a wet wine glass, filled with some water (in the sink). That was it! The sound was almost equal to the feeling grasped from the sky! I called my wife and oldest daughter to play their wine glasses tuned to different pitches than mine. After hearing our glass trio I knew that the new piece for Brady’s choir would have water-tuned glasses and that the song would be about the stars. Soon I found a beautiful poem by Sara Teasdale, Stars, and immediately fell into my composing process.
The world premiere was in a church in Argentina. Stars would be the last piece on the programme. After the rehearsal the water-tuned glasses were left on the first row pew so the singers could readily access them. When it was time for the piece in the program, the singers moved to take their glasses, only to find lipstick on the glass! Some people in the church had thought the water was for drinking! Brady understood the problem and started the song just with the glasses playing, listening to them and making decisions which glasses were still in tune and which were not. After cancelling the wrong ones, he started the whole song. Funny!
Amazing grace (2004)
I was 11 years old and a budding composer when I heard my first true muse—Whitney Houston. During the Soviet occupation of Latvia we couldn’t get the sheet music for her songs. But I loved watching her on TV and collecting her cassette tapes. Houston’s songs surprised, intrigued and inspired me on my own musical journey. I certainly should say (a posthumous) thank you to her for being such an inspiration in my musical career. The natural flow of harmonies in her songs attracted me very deeply. In 2004, when I was a composition student at the Latvian Academy of Music, I decided to create an arrangement of Amazing grace for the Riga Youth Choir Kamēr… and its artistic director Māris Sirmais. In the score I included a solo part that I imagined one day would be performed by Whitney Houston with an American choir. At the time professor Sirmais was extremely busy and he soon forgot about my score. Two years later when I became a singer under Māris in the State Choir Latvija, I humbly reminded him about the song. He found it in one of the drawers in his desk, played through it on the piano, and immediately gave it to the youth choir Kamēr…. The arrangement was soon given a fantastic premiere and recorded on compact disc.
Ēriks Ešenvalds © 2020