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Rebecca Dale (b1985)

Night Seasons

 
 
Download only Available Friday 23 August 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: 23 August 2024
Total duration: 65 minutes 27 seconds

Cover artwork: Image © Tryntsje Nauta.
 
The Night Seasons album is really about hope—looking for the light in difficult times. It’s made up of the last few years of my writing for choir and orchestra, partly during the pandemic, so a product of that collective experience. It was also written during a time of personal difficulty while my father was terminally ill. But despite these circumstances I think it’s actually a very hopeful album, reaching for the wonder around us. In addition to the choir, performed by the incredible Tenebrae (who I’ve loved for ever), the album centres writing for the cello, possibly my favourite instrument to write for, and it’s been one of the great privileges of my life to be able to write for cellist heroes of mine to whom I grew up listening. I hope you enjoy it.

There will come
There will come was a commission from the Philharmonia as part of their Human/Nature series. Having grown up playing violin I really love writing for strings, but was also interested in setting some well-known poems, and I find that lyric lines help me craft a structure even when I’m writing instrumental pieces. I hoped to write a piece that could eventually work for both. The extraordinary Sara Teasdale’s poem feels both hopeful and devastating—beginning as a pastoral idyll (and at 1'56 you can hear the cello chirping a little like a bird as the robins in the poem are ‘whistling their whims’. Musically it also incorporates elements of that pastoral British tradition), before the poem covers an apocalypse, and ends with the continuity of nature. I was really attracted to this duality—it almost feels like it’s about both the end of and the beginning of the world. And I also love the mysterious duality within the shortened title—there’s a sense of hope for the future, something important to come, but what it is we don’t quite know. So this piece wrestles between those two emotions—of hope, and of nostalgia for things lost—and it’s one of my favourites I’ve written. We recorded the piece during lockdown with all the players metres apart—it’s a testament to the players’ skill (and Jake Jackson’s great mixing) that you’re not able to tell. The choral version, There will come soft rains, I then created specifically for this album—it’s not been publicly performed yet!

The cloths of heaven
The idea for The cloths of heaven began as a little period drama-style theme I wrote on the piano. I then used it for the wedding scene when I wrote additional music for the BBC’s series adaption of Little Women. But I always thought it’d be lovely to expand it into a choir piece, so when I was commissioned by Dr Jennifer Lang and the Greystone Singers of the University of Saskatchewan (who had previously given the Canadian premiere of my requiem) it felt like the perfect opportunity. But I still needed a text. I was searching around for the right fit, and spoke to my dear friend Ruth Evans, to whom this piece is dedicated. She recommended Yeats’ poem, which she has always loved. And it felt just right. In the end the Greystone Singers’ first performance was during lockdown without an audience—a video where they were all 2m apart, but music could still bring them together. They did a wonderful job.

True love
There’s a lovely story behind the piece. In 2022 I was contacted by someone who had sung in the choir that recorded When Music Sounds (the choral symphony on my first album). He had met his fiancée singing in choir together, and wanted to commission something for their wedding as a surprise to his fiancée during the ceremony—what a beautiful thing to be part of. And both being regular singers they had a lot of willing friends who could perform it! I wanted to create something atmospheric that spoke to the gravity and sacred value of a love that lasts a lifetime. Searching around for a text I came across this moving anonymous poem. After the wedding performance, which was a cappella, I decided to add a harp and low string quartet. It’s an unusual setup—two cellos and two basses, but added the deep bass gravitas it felt it needed. I’ve been asked about why this piece feels quasi-religious. For me I don’t think there’s anything more profound in the universe than deep love, whatever its form.

Jo’s theme
Jo’s theme was another melody originally written for Little Women on the BBC. Jo is a brilliant character, full of enthusiasm, determination and a fierce feminist, but also with an innocence. The soundtrack was never released but I kept receiving requests for the piece, interestingly quite often to play at weddings. So I thought it would be lovely to release a version for choir and piano. I’ve kept the arrangement very simple—I think it works best like that.

Stopping by woods on a snowy evening
I was thrilled to be asked to write a piece for Voces8’s new album Winter back in 2016, also recording with violinist and cellist duo Mari & Håkon Samuelsen. Looking for possible texts it didn’t take long to fix on Robert Frost’s seminal, hauntingly atmospheric poem, which is one of America’s favourites. I could see there had been some settings released, but on further investigation his estate looked to be quite restrictive about it (and in fact Eric Whitacre was famously refused permission at one point). Still, estates positions can change, particularly if something hasn’t been set for a few years—so I thought it was at least worth enquiring. Miraculously … they gave permission! And I excitedly set about putting it to music, in as evocative and storytelling a way as I could. A draft went out to the performers and everything was looking good. Then four days before recording, the estate inexplicably withdrew its permission. You can imagine the panic that ensued! But I was really lucky to know the brilliant lyricist Tamsin Collison, who I called up in a fluster. To a very tight deadline she set new lyrics to my existing music, and I think they’re just gorgeous. This became the title track on the Voces8 album.

I truly love that version. But even so, it’s always played on my mind since that the original setting was never released, and I thought perhaps one day I’d like to. Separately, I was getting requests for a more easily performable a cappella version without violin, cello and celeste. Fast forward to 2023, and the poem had finally gone out of copyright in the US. But copyright laws being the complicated things they are, it was still in copyright in many other areas of the world, including the UK. 'At least we could release a version in the US' I thought, and made the decision to record it anyway. But releasing different albums in different territories can create a real pickle. So armed with the new recording, we approached the estate again. The difference was that this time a version would be released—it was just whether they’d grant us a worldwide licence. I waited nervously, not really expecting the answer yes. But this time a yes came! So that’s the story of how we came to be able to release one of the first official settings in many years of Stopping by woods on a snowy evening, and I hope you like it.

Salve regina
The London Oriana Choir ran a great project called five:fifteen—five female composers over five years, each writing three pieces. I was one of their resident composers, and they requested a setting of the Salve regina ('Hail queen', a Catholic hymn to Mary from the Middle Ages). I wanted to create something that felt like it was in a religious tradition and might be heard from the back of a cathedral, with dreamy, gently atmospheric cluster chords. And I loved the (slightly risky!) idea of beginning with a high exposed solo voice. Throughout the piece the originally homophonic (sung together) ‘Salve regina’ motif gradually disintegrates until there is a lot of polyphonic overlapping. I think my favourite moment in this piece is that dreamy shift onto the final chord at 4'30. The piece is dedicated to my wonderful Catholic friend Meriel Raymond.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
I was commissioned in 2019 by the Leys School, Cambridge and their head of music Max Kenworthy to write something that would stretch their talented chamber choir (young singers who performed it brilliantly—this is not that easy a piece). I was still interested in setting some well-known poems, but felt that a setting for a ‘Daffodils’ poem might easily become saccharine. So I decided to go in the other direction, with a darker feel. The poem is very much about the 'joy of solitude'—an individual, separate from society, alone with nature and their thoughts, and I hope the music recreates something of that feeling. I wanted to create something that also spoke to its historic significance too—to do this I actually reached further back to use musical Renaissance influences—culturally, a period of rebirth where for the first time art and science fully centred the individual. Finally, there’s a musical technique I like using in this piece (which you also hear in Stopping by woods and Night Seasons)—it repeats a simple, accessible tune, with the harmonisation and arrangement getting more interesting/unusual as we go.

Night Seasons (Concerto for cello & choir, with orchestra)
I was first contacted in 2019 by Arnaud Oosterbaan, the musical director of the Opus Foundation, a semi-professional choir and orchestra in the Netherlands, about the possibility of being their next resident composer. This would involve a series of concerts of my work around the Netherlands culminating at the Royal Concertgebouw concert hall in Amsterdam, also incorporating professional soloists, extensive lighting design and artwork. And it would involve a new 20-minute commission for choir and orchestra. Pretty exciting stuff! But what did I want to write? As a composer you often have snippets of ideas around that are searching for the right home. And this gave me an opportunity to bring them together. The idea originally came out of the requiem, where I’d written the theme for a Sanctus. But as I developed it I realised I wanted the cello to play a bigger role in the piece than the format of the requiem could hold—there was already a prominent cello solo in the Kyrie and the requiem was quite long. So in place of the Sanctus I wrote the 'Libera me,' and the Sanctus sat in a bottom drawer for years. But it had set me thinking about the idea of an evocative work that might explore more fully the interplay between cello and choir. While a resident composer for the London Oriana Choir I’d had the opportunity to develop this idea further—testing out a first version of the 'Nox perpetua' (words from Roman poet Catullus. Fun fact—another bottom drawer moment—an early version of the 'Nox perpetua' theme I originally wrote as a piano nocturne when I was 15, and submitted for my GCSE! But I always felt there was something there worth exploring further one day). These two pieces felt like they belonged together. The brooding 'Nox perpetua' ('Eternal night') would begin, and the more radiant, celestial Sanctus would close. But what for the middle?

In the meantime, various tumultuous events were unfolding. The world went into lockdown, and everything we knew changed in an instant. The concert, originally scheduled for 2021, was put back a year, and then another year after that—we didn’t really know what the future was for performances. In my own life, my father was battling the later stages of Motor Neurone Disease, dependent on expensive round-the-clock care, and it was an inexplicably cruel fate that that should happen to him when he’d been beginning to really rebuild his life after losing Mum. He was of course very vulnerable to Covid, and that and the lockdown rules meant we could see very little of him, missing his last two Christmases. To add to the bonfire I was also dealing with an unexpected breakup, which had left me disorientated and in tatters. So it would be accurate to say the period during which I was writing this was one of the darkest of my life. And I know that collectively a lot of people were going through dark times at this point too. Out of this came the middle movement, 'When it’s darkest, a prayer for the dawn'—really it’s about trying to hold on in the middle of the storm. The words come from the hymn ‘Nearer my God to thee’. I substituted ‘the dawn’ so the message felt more universal, but I believe that in fact it says the same thing. My upbringing wasn’t religious, and I couldn’t claim to be so. But I often find myself drawn to setting religious texts—they speak to something deeper and ineffable. I’m happy for people to interpret my music however it speaks personally to them.

The middle movement follows my musical intention with the other two in that it explores and expands one simple theme (these movements barely get a musical second subject). I was finishing it when I heard the about the suicide of my friend, the talented composer and choral singer Alastair Putt. In a small way, what he must have been through chimed uncomfortably with the thoughts I had sometimes been visited by in those dark places, and that I suspect may have touched many of us at our most difficult moments. This movement is dedicated to his memory.

Night Seasons follows an arc, both within and across the movements, of beginning in a darker place and edging towards release, radiance and catharsis. If we hold on: dawn will come.

Rebecca Dale © 2024

I am indebted to everyone who has created this album with me, and in particular to those who commissioned the music: The Opus Foundation & Arnaud Oosterbaan, The Philharmonia, The London Oriana Choir & Dominic Peckham, Saskatchewan University & Dr Jennifer Lang, The Leys School & Max Kenworthy, Voces8 and Sam Lipworth. Thank you to everyone at Signum, to Alex Van Ingen, Jake Jackson, Nigel Short & Tenebrae, Michael Collins, Steven Isserlis, Guy Johnston, Richard Harwood, Ben Dawson, Richard McVeigh, Dave Rowell, Hilary Skewes, Mark Jordan, Joanna Gill, Giles Thornton, Colin Rae, Raian Khan, and Tryntsje Nauta, whose photography exhibition for the Night Seasons premiere I loved so much she let me use the images for the album!

A huge thank you to my (long suffering!) manager Laurence Aston, whose skills brilliantly complement my shortages, and to my wonderful family, in particular to my grandfather R Meredith Belbin and my uncle Nigel Belbin, whose unwavering support and belief in me has meant more than I can say.

Rebecca Dale © 2024

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