ANTONIN DVORAK: Songs of Nature (V Přírodě) op. 63
In 2021, an exhibition at the Czech Museum of Music in Prague presented original items from Dvořák’s personal estate, such as the walking sticks and drinking bottles he used on long hikes, the straw hats he usually wore in the summer months while gardening at his country house in Vysoká, and his copy of an expert book on birdsong. These items show someone who wanted to be immersed in nature, a particular state-of-mind he expressed in his Concert Overture In Nature’s Realm, Op. 91, from 1891. The Concert Overture shares its name with this set of five choral songs, V přírodě, Op. 63, (more accurately translated as ‘In Nature’, rather than ‘Songs of Nature’), themselves named after a collection of poems by Vítězslav Hálek published in 1872.
Hálek’s poems dwell on an imagined symbiotic connection between music and nature, as if it had all been part of God’s plan (Dvořák called it “God’s beautiful nature”). Much like Dvořák’s own experiences, these poems occupy a highly sensory world where the reader’s knowledge of a broad range of flora and fauna is assumed. The first song, composed in February 1882, has a reverence to it: a respect of what the distant, dream-like song of nature offers our innermost feelings. The second song occupies the realm of evening — Hálek’s poem offering a sense of stillness in which even the slightest breeze and tiniest of rustles can be heard. Dvořák’s setting similarly conjures this atmosphere, adding a denseness of vegetation with the spacing of his harmony within the framework of a lullaby. The third song, which in fact was the first of the set to be composed, in January 1882, has a windswept openness to it and a sense of play as the summer breeze sweeps through the blades of rye, so that every blade becomes a musician. The fourth and fifth songs embrace the tradition of Bohemian folk dances, the finale being a lively wedding song with an unapologetically erotic edge to it. For a composer who evidently felt such a strong connection to the countryside around Vysoká, the significance of these miniatures would have only increased for Dvořák as his career became more international.
EVELIN SEPPAR: Seesama meri
Evelin Seppar’s choral music has been performed by the SWR Vokalensemble,
Latvian Radio Choir, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Netherlands Chamber Choir, among others. Seesama meri (The same sea) was commissioned for the 2019 Estonian Music Days festival and premiered by ensemble Vox Clamantis, conducted by Jaan-Eik Tulve. It is worth first turning to the work’s text, a poem by one of Estonia’s best known cultural figures Jaan Kaplinski, and noticing how its structure of having largely one word to each line might influence (or inhibit) it being set to music. On the one hand, there is a sense of abruptness, even constant interruption, and on the other a concentrated stream of thoughts, inner states and memories revealing themselves rather like the randomness of our own subconscious.
Seppar’s opening music immediately captures the atmosphere of a dark, lapping sea as the work’s title is treated first as a sound before it is heard in full. The pitches are packed very close together, an approach which relies on the different timbres of the different voice parts to provide shades of colour. Following a gradual expansion Seppar’s response to the words ‘punane, pime, soe’ (‘red, dark, warm’) is to have a striking moment of sudden calm and achingly beautiful harmony. With her beguiling, haunting way of writing melodies, and her subtle use of variated repetition, the resulting sense of sound being suspended in space is where Seppar reflects Kaplinski most tangibly. Indeed, the word ‘avaruse’ (‘space’) is echoed by a soprano and tenor soloist, as if denoting it to be a particularly important idea for the piece itself. Where Seppar adds her own interpretation, perhaps, is perceiving a heightening of psychological intensity as the poem approaches its final lines. After the brief section with soloists the music swells for a recapitulation of the work’s title. This tension is sustained, stretched out, and ultimately unresolved, suggesting that the final words ‘ootamas merd’ (‘waiting for the sea’) are charged with nervous anticipation.
JONATHAN HARVEY: Marahi
The British composer Jonathan Harvey described Marahi (1999) as ‘a hymn of adoration to the Divine Feminine in the form of the Virgin Mary and the Buddhist Goddess Varahi’. The work’s title is in fact a combination of these two deities, and reflects Harvey’s fondness for wordplay. The idea behind the work, which the composer calls a ‘ritual’, is that this adoration (realised musically by hymns and sutras) is active in three ‘realms’: the angelic (major triads), the human (plainsong-inspired monodic lines) and the animal (sounds from the animal kingdom). Listeners will certainly pick out the different musical ideas belonging to each realm, however the structure of the piece becomes more difficult to distinguish as the separation between these realms become blurred and succumbs to the ritual.
A further ritualistic effect is the use of a wide variety of texts, from traditional Marian antiphons in Latin, Sanskrit Buddhist prayers in the original language, and a Renaissance hymn to Mary, Virgo Prudentissima, which the composer explains can be performed in the language of the choir or of the audience (here it will be performed in English). This coexistence of Christianity and Buddhism reflects the beliefs held by the composer as he was approaching the new millennium, together with his interest in Vedic texts and meditation techniques. In many ways, Marahi preempts Harvey’s cantata Mothers shall not cry, composed for the BBC Proms in 2000, where the same divine feminine is liberated from male-indued suffering.
JOEL JÄRVENTAUSTA: There will come soft rains
“There will come soft rains is a work composed to the poem of the same name by Sara Teasdale (1884 – 1933). The message of Teasdale’s World War I poem is simple: nature will flourish regardless of human existence. The poem reminds us of the importance of nature and that man is dependent on nature. Of course, closeness to nature and respect for nature and the spiritual well-being it produces have already been written about for a long time. That’s why I thought it appropriate to travel back in time about 900 years and borrow the melodies of Hildegard von Bingen’s (1098 – 1179) song O Nobilissima Viriditas about the greenness and beauty of nature. Von Bingen’s melodies also fit well with the tonality of my own work.”
FRANK MARTIN: Songs of Ariel
These now celebrated lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, known as the Songs of Ariel, have been set to music ever since the play first premiered in 1611. The play and its characters have also provided the inspiration for a number of later orchestral works, for example by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. The Swiss composer Frank Martin composed his Five Songs of Ariel in 1950 for the Netherlands Chamber Choir and their conductor Felix de Nobel. It is his only other a cappella choral work aside from the Mass for double choir (1922), which Martin famously kept secret for forty years.
The first song, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’, from Act I, Scene 2, is sung by an ‘invisible’ Ariel (a sea nymph) as a greeting to the shipwrecked nobleman Ferdinand. Martin’s setting immediately conjures the impression of a bleak, undulating sea, calming down after a terrible storm. The basses provide unsettling and untuneful ‘bow-wows’, which later transfigure into the frenzied barks of the watch-dogs. The rooster’s crowing is also heard (sung by a different soprano soloist each time), however the dogs continue their restless baying and undermine any sense of a rooted tonality. One might imagine the dramatic effect of these animal noises coming from offstage in a theatrical context, the totality of which leaves Ferdinand feeling completely disorientated: ‘Where should this music be? I’ th’ air, or th’ earth?’.
Ariel begins a new song, ‘Full fathom five thy father lies’, but now his tune has changed as his purpose is to haunt Ferdinand with images of his drowned father who has become part of the seabed. We hear a hushed, floating accompaniment in the sopranos and altos before the tenors and baritones sing a long and sinuous melody; this time, the sea knows it has something to hide. The lower basses punctuate the texture with deep, accented bell tones — still hushed, as if coming from the distant deep. Here, Martin uses a harmonic style known as modal parallelism, frequently used by French composers Debussy and Satie, and before them Chabrier, where voice-leading is prioritised producing symmetrical shapes and very colourful harmony. This means that when the texture clarifies at the words ‘But doth suffer a sea change’, the sequence of chords preserve a sense of something mysterious, intangible, rich and strange.
By Act IV, Scene 1, the previously embittered Prospero has relented and allowed Ferdinand to marry his daughter Miranda. Wishing to entertain the couple with a masque, Prospero asks his faithful servant Ariel to gather all the other spirits for the occasion. Ariel’s reply forms the text of the next song, ‘Before you can say “Come” and “Go”’. In this short scherzo-like movement, lasting less than a minute, Martin captures Ariel’s urgency and pays very close attention to the music’s articulation to create a sense of nymphs racing along nimbly and with strange facial expressions (‘mop and mow’). Finally, there is a cessation to the frenzy as Ariel asks Prospero if his master has any affection for him. Martin’s choice of harmony beautifully underlines the vulnerability and innocence of Ariel’s question.
The next song, ‘Ye are three men of sin’, jumps back to Act III, Scene 3. King Alonso and his party are led to believe that they are being treated to a banquet, but when they attempt to begin eating it disappears and instead Ariel, now transformed into a Harpy, mocks and exposes them amid the clash of thunder and lightning. Martin’s furious gallop begins with an angular theme which uses nearly all of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale (he had based his mature style on Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique). The word ‘remember’ transforms the music into something calmer and an alto soloist takes up the role of Ariel leading to another outburst: ‘Thee of thy son, Alonso, They have bereft’. Martin stretches out the ending of this song in a new section where Ariel explains that he will inflict a slow ruin on Alonso, ‘worse than any death’, the music moving at a pace like that of a ticking clock charged with anger and indignation.
The fifth and final song comes from Act V, Scene I, where Prospero fulfils his promise to release Ariel back to where he belongs, among the cowslips and blossom. Martin creates a lively and voluptuous conclusion to his set with the sounds of buzzing bees, gleeful incantations and finally a swinging, carefree dance of freedom. This was not to be Martin’s final encounter with The Tempest: he used it as the base to the libretto of his German-language opera Der Sturm completed in 1955.
Perttu Haapanen: Strophes II
Strophes (2006, revised 2010) and Strophes II (2007, revised 2009) are among Haapanen’s most obviously experimental works. Although he was already an experienced vocal composer, it is with these two works that he began his thorough exploration of extended techniques. Conventional singing is only one sound source among many, and is treated equally with other methods of sound production. (All the sounds are made by the singers without external aids and there are no electronics.) In addition to sounds produced with the vocal apparatus, we hear finger snaps, clapping and foot stamping. Haapanen’s pair of works is based on material from Requiem, Op. 33b, by the Icelandic composer Jón Leifs (1899–1968), a short a cappella work in memory of Leifs’ daughter, who drowned in a swimming accident at the age of 17. Borrowing from Leifs the harmonic focus on the pitch A and the phonemes of his text (drawn from Icelandic folk poetry and a poem by Jónas Hallgrímsson), and working with the rhythms of Icelandic folk poetry, Haapanen creates an eerie underwater world. In the first bars of Strophes, the listener may identify the first word of Leifs’ work, ‘Sofinn’ (‘Asleep’): the vowels in the vocal fry of the basses, the consonants in the sopranos. Strophes II is not based directly on Leifs, but is a further development of the material of Strophes. In Haapanen’s words, ‘the compositional process here is reminis cent of the process of decay and disintegration: the rotten and weathered remains of the original text echo as if from the silent sea floor’.