Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Singing in Strange Lands

The eminent Old Testament scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann, writes tellingly about the different modes of Psalms. He divides them into three primary categories. While the contemporary Christian church tends to focus on the pastoral Psalms of thanksgiving and praise, he directs attention to the more idiosyncratically Jewish Psalms of "disorientation" and "new orientation." The Psalms of lamentation and the "penitential Psalms" fall into the former category in articulating the Psalmist's (and the people's) sufferings and tribulations, often from a locus of captivity and/or exile--literal and spiritual.

Psalm 13 opens with a characteristic expression of abandonment & isolation:

"How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?"

Psalm 137, one of the most famous of these Psalms, begins in exile:

"By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres."

The cessation and absence of song are traits of these exilic lamentations. Such metaphors have been present in the spiritual and aesthetic lives of Psalmists from the Babylonian exile to the Shoah. They have inspired composers from the Renaissance to today, from Palestrina to Arvo Pärt. These poems are complex, invite multiple readings, and resist the pat triumphalism that characterizes much contemporary usage of the Psalms.

Indeed, Theodor Adorno's dictum that "after Auschwitz there can be no poetry" still resonates, as sirens blared in Israel yesterday to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. That harrowing annual ritual commemorating the Shoah reminds us that even the starkest Psalmist metaphors can be rendered inadequate.

I have been reacquainting myself with the life and music of Hugo Distler, the early 20th century Lutheran composer and conductor who took his own life in 1942 (he was 34). "Until now I believed that God was with me, but now I believe that he has forsaken me." Echoing Psalm 22 ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") Distler's words upon receiving the consription orders from the Nazis drove him to self-inflicted martyrdom. Even more tragically, friends were working to exempt the exceptionally gifted musician from service in the SS, but that news did not reach him in time.

Another artist who has been much on my consciousness lately (see previous posts) is the "mad" poet John Clare. Institionalized for the last 30-some years of his life, Clare echoed the Zionist laments of the exilic Psalms in his letters:

"I am in the ninth year of Captivity among the Babylonians and any news from Home is a Godsend or blessing."

In drawing our attention to the Psalms of disorientation, Brueggemann warns his readers of the uncomfortable landscape they inhabit, with violent language of bitter comlaint and unsated vengeance. While the opening of Psalm 137 vividly evokes captivity, exile, and the unsettling quiet of silenced songs, the end of the Psalm is disturbingly violent:

"O daughter of Babyon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!"

I do not presume to be enough of a theologian or literary critic to unpack the layers of significance in such language. I appreciate Brueggemann's identifying of the Psalmists' process (and progression) from despair to vengeance to eventual faithfulness. He describes such cries for vengeance as "venting" and cites their necessity in such a complex relationship.

Clare could be equally violent when describing his captivity and the sufferings (both real and imagined) he endured in the asyla:

"...When people make such mistakes as to call me God's bastard and whores pay me by shutting me up from God's people out of the way of common sense and then take my head off because they can't find me--it out Herods Herod"

Distler, as noted above, felt forsaken, and in another letter describes the political realities of the Nazi regime as a time

"in which God has apparently relinquished power to the Evil One."

With telling self-awareness, he analyzes his own state of mind:

"I suffer increasingly from a chronic despondency that borders on depression and is certainly the result of the irritating war of nerves. There are no words to describe how horrible the present and the near future look to us."

Distler's music expresses the anxiety & fear--the angst--of his time, and his impressive output of sacred music reflects such struggles. Much of his music is based on Lutheran chorales. Distler's motets are masterpieces of the 20th century as Bach's are to the Baroque. And like Bach, Distler does not shrink from the theological and human complexities of sacred poems like Isaiah's "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." (Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit, op. 12, no. 9 is one of Distler's crowning achivements in his unfinished magnum opus of Sacred Choral Music). While Bach often hid the chorale tunes in the middle of dense textures of elaborate counterpoint, Distler's scores are more disjointed. Wide leaps and extended melismas characterize his melodies, haltering rhythms trip over one another as they accelerate, and snippets of recognizable tunes briefly appear, like a swimmer lifting his head above the water to gasp for air. These motets sound like no others, and deserve a wider berth in our appreciation of the tradition. And lest the reader think they are all darkness and despair, Distler struggles to emerge from the abyss and--if not attain--at least glimpse the light.

"May the great light in the midst of the great darkness that dominates the world grow and finally triumph...Most important: that we soon have peace. Let us pray above all for that."

Unlike Psalm 137, most of these Psalms of lamentation contain a pivot point where the disorientation, bitterness &/or vengeance yields to doxology. Distler's quote echoes the pithy example of Psalm 13, the first verse of which opened this essay. The last half of the 6 verse Psalm continues:

" Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say "I have prevailed over him,"
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken."

Then, the seemingly out-of-the-blue (like an unprepared harmonic progression) hinge from demanding complaint to praise:

"But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me."

Through the complex and untidy process of confrontation & complaint, with spiritual & emotional honesty, the Psalmist actively cultivates relationship with God, with remarkable self-awareness of his rights & his place. That is, at least, one reading of the above. In that light, I read Distler's and Clare's writings with a look to the whole, mourn the tragedies of their respective ends and celebrate the affirming power of their work with renewed zest and will.

The Psalmist in 137 asks "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" Clare lamented a similar fate with more disturbing imagery when asked about how his poetry was progressing in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, his "home" from 1841 until his death in 1864:

"Why, they have cut off my head and picked out all the letters in the alphabet--all the vowels and all the consonants and brought them out through my ears--and then they want me to write poetry! I can't do it."

And just as the Psalmist uses metaphor to work through the process of negativity via the demands for revenge, Clare managed to retrieve a few vowels and consonants, and like his older colleague, Christopher Smart (another "mad" poet and Britten muse, to be discussed later!) wrote remarkably visionary poetry while institutionalized.

Distler's tombstone contains an epitaph from John 16:33:

"In the world you are afraid, but be of good courage,
for I have overcome the world."

Clare's final poem 'Birds Nests,' contains a similar message of comfort from the sanctuary of Nature:

'Tis Spring warm glows the South
Chaffinchs carry the moss in his mouth
To the filbert hedges all day long
And charms the poet with his beautiful song

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Crazy crackd braind fellow"

Franz Wright begins his wry poem, "Publication Date" with this observation:

One of the few pleasures of writing
is the thought of one's books in the hands of a kindhearted
intelligent person somewhere. I can't remember what the others
are right now.

The British "peasant poet" John Clare (1793-1864; see end of previous post re: Britten Project) may or may not posthumously agree with Wright. But the two share a sensibility for the artist's tenuous foothold in life, his shifting relationship with the cosmos, and a conscience plagued by pendulum swings that range from mountain-top exhilaration to valley-of-death despair (we use the pallid diagnosis "bipolar disorder" today. "Manic-depressive" is a better descriptor of these competing poles of consciousness).

As he worked on his first book of poetry, Clare wrote in his autobiography, with portentous self-awareness:

I felt awkwardly situated and knew not which way to proceed.
I had a variety of minds about me and all of them unsettled.

Often compared to Robert Burns, both for cultivating a style of writing beholden to folk-song, & vernacular speech (as opposed to a learned "academic" style) and for falling victim to vice, Clare's first publisher wrote:

It is to be greatly feared that the man will be afflicted with insanity 
if his talent continues to be forced as it has been...
he has no other mode of easing the fever that oppresses him
after a tremendous fit of rhyming except by getting tipsy...
Then he is melancholy and completely hypochondriac.

Wright's poem continues with a similar temperamental sea-change:

I just noticed that it is my own private
National I Hate Myself and Want to Die Day
(which means the next day I will love my life
and want to live forever).

After achieving a burst of fame & notoriety as the rustic, peasant poet & uncultured genius, Clare presciently saw the writing on the wall (he had little formal education and worked as an agricultural labourer to support his parents and siblings):

I am sought after very much agen [sic] now...
some rather entertaining people and some d----d knowing fools--
but let me wait another year or two and the peep show will be over--
and my vanity if I have any will end
in its proper mortification to know that obscurity is happiness 
and that John Clare the thresher in the onset
and neglected rhymer in the end 
are the only two comfortable periods of his life.

Though largely self-taught as a writer and reader, Clare was an astute observer and critic, and the inimitably colorful language of his poetry and prose became a trademark (and puts him near the level of his Romantic contemporaries like Coleridge, Byron & Keats). Here is one such observation, replete with his characteristically idiosyncratic spelling & grammar:

Wordsworth defies all art and in all the lunatic Enthuseism of nature
he negligently sets down his thoughts from the tongue of his inspirer.

Clare also demonstrated his grasp of relations where business 
is concerned in self-effacing imagery to his publisher, 
while working on his second collection:

"I have been trying songs and want your judgment only either to
stop me or set me off again at full gallop which your disaproval
or applause has as much power to effect as if spoken by a majician--
the rod of criticism in your hand has as much power over your
poor sinful rhymer as the rod of Aaron in the land of Egypt.

Biblical references pepper Clare's writing and his shifting, 
doubt-ridden faith anticipates such eminent writers as Hardy. 
Both poets articulated their doubts about institutionalized religion 
while outlining creeds extolling the enduring presence of Nature.

Wright's poem comes from his latest book, "God's Silence" a masterful sequence of poems charting the journey of life and faith and the artist's struggle to find & create meaning in the midst of the ever-shifting seasons.  "Publication Date" continues:

The forecast calls
for a cold night in Boston all morning

and all afternoon. They say
tomorrow will be just like today,
only different. I'm in the cemetery now
at the edge of town, how did I get here?

By the time Clare was institutionalized for "madness" 
he must have asked the same question. 
He maintained a sense of self-awareness even as he 
struggled with his temperament:

I am in that muddy melancholy again--my ideas keep swimming 
and shiftingin sleepy drowziness from one thing to another--
this letter will denote the crazy crackd braind fellow it has left behind.

Clare's poetry is at its best when making connections between 
the world of nature and the lost innocence of humanity. 
Birds, flowers and trees represent the ineffable beauty of nature 
while simultaneously standing  for the indiscriminate transience 
of life. He would so identify with nature he would literally 
adapt the voices of birds in his writing. 

Presaging by more than a century the mystic French composer, 
Olivier Messiaen  (who eccentrically chronicled hundreds of bird-calls 
he then transcribed into his scores), Clare wrote:

Of stranger witching notes was heard
As if it was a stranger bird:
"Wew-wew wew-wew chur-chur chur-chur
Woo-it woo-it"--could this be her?
"Tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew
Chew-rit chew-rit"--and ever new--

"Ever new" indeed does Clare's poetry still read nearly two hundred years after the publication of his first visionary book. 

Wright's enigmatic poem ends with the surreal image of another poet (Garcia Lorca) speaking-- through the medium of a sparrow--a message of comfort we can only assume would have spoken to Clare, and all the other "crazy crackd braind" folks out there, reading, writing, dreaming, playing and praying their way through the world:

A sparrow limps past on its little bone crutch saying
I am Federico Garcia Lorca
risen from the dead--
literature will lose, sunlight will win, don't worry.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Britten Project: Take 1

As I wrote in my program notes for the upcoming VC concert, we are kicking-off an exciting venture with our Britten Project. Over the next five seasons we will explore and perform most of the a capella and small-scale choral works of the greatest composer to set the English language since Purcell. We will revisit old favorites like "Ceremony of Carols" and collaborate with the Virginia Children's Chorus on the early choral masterpiece, "A Boy was Born" and offer many of the short anthems and hymns, among other cycles and cantatas. We are starting with these performances of the "Five Flower Songs," and culminating in a St Cecilia Day-Britten Centennial concert on his birthday November 22, 2013 (OK, that's not on the books YET, but we're looking ahead...). It is fitting that one of the most prodigious and gifted composers of the 20th century was born on the name-day of the patron saint of music, St Cecilia.

As I was sharing with the singers following a rehearsal earlier this week, one of the traits that sets Britten apart from other vocal/choral composers is his facile and refined use of instrumental textures to shape his writing for voices. The most obvious example in the Flower Songs is the closing "Ballad of Green Broom" in which an anonymous poem is set like a folksong with guitar accompaniment. The melody is passed from voice to voice, while the other 3 accompanying voices sing short words that sound like plucked or strum guitar chords (in every varying arrangements, to accommodate the shifting voice of the melody--Tenor/SAB; Bass/SAT; etc). The poem is a ballad about a lazy young man--"without thought, without good" who is finally roused from lethargy to go to work as a woodsman--"cutting broom"-- and on his way passes by a Lady's "fine house" who calls for him to come and marry "a lady in full bloom"--seeing a way out of his labor "Johnny gave his consent/and to church they both went."

As the narrative picks up momentum, so does the tempo, and Britten varies the accompanying figures, building to a pair of dizzying duets where the voices literally chase one another (B/T followed by A/S). This tumbling section leads to a climactic verse where all 4 voices come together for the only time in the piece, an accomplished gesture that is punctuated with a virtuosic tag on the recurring emblematic phrase "green Broom."

Even when Britten is not emulating specifically instrumental techniques in his choral works, his use of texture is imaginative and varied. For example, the opening Flower Song, a bright arrangement of Robert Herrick's "To Daffodils" conjures the image of flowers blowing in the breeze. Paired voices frame the piece (S/B & A/T) in a charming duet. The middle section features the upper three voices in staccato chords (like offstage brass) while the basses pick up the melody from the opening soprano line under which they originally harmonized. The gently churning rhythm, the subtly shifting harmonies and textures mirror the poetic subject: flowers that "haste away so soon."

The second Herrick setting, "The Succession of the Four Sweet Months" echoes the Renaissance madrigal text perfectly. The four months, April-July, are taken up by the four voices in a classic miniature of imitative polyphony, as befitting its madrigalesque subject. Britten finishes this song with a succinct demonstration of his craftsmanship: a five bar codetta featuring each part with its respective month (S=April, A=May, T=June, B=July), the S & B outlining the home-key, while the inner voices flirt with a harmonic modulation unpredictable enough to pique our interest to the final resolution.

The middle two works are the heart of this cycle, and feature two poets dear to Britten. George Crabbe lived on the same street in Aldeburgh Britten and Pears eventually would. Aldeburgh is an unforgettable place. A tiny sea-side town on the east coast of England, just far enough up to feel the chill of the North Sea in all but the warmest months, it is surrounded by marshes and wetlands which lend it a special aura and fill it with memorable aromas. Aldeburgh has amazing fish and chips, which are best enjoyed sitting on the shingle as the imposing tide that inspired so much of Britten's music crashes at your feet. Crabbe wrote a book-length poem called The Borough, and it would inspire Britten's first opera, Peter Grimes, which catapulted the barely 30-year-old composer to fame. Peter Grimes is an outcast--a loner, a dreamer, a melancholy & troubled man who struggles in professional and personal life, to put it blandly. Britten and Pears identified with the loner & dreamer outcast in Grimes. His struggle between good and evil, innocence and corruption would parallel a leitmotif that would weave through Britten's work, culminating in his last opera, Death in Venice.

That is all to say the juxtaposition of Crabbe's "Marsh Flowers" with the mad, outcast, "peasant poet" John Clare's "Evening Primrose" is significant, and requires our attention. Never mind that Britten, a copious letter reader and writer and chronicler of his whereabouts and goings on where his and Pears' life and work were concerned did not even mention the Flower songs until AFTER they were completed (and this is unusual). And even then he did not have much to say about them, other than drawing an inquiring conductor's attention to the connection between "Marsh Flowers" and Peter Grimes! So, I find it telling that the harsh, acerbic world of the miniature masterpiece that is "Marsh Flowers" comes from the same source that inspired the first of Britten's intensely personal dozen-or-so operas. The Borough (=Aldeburgh--ie: a small town filled with, among other things, gossip...familiar, anyone?!?) represents the judgmental, closed, hypocritical "status quo" against which the artist/outsider/outcast struggles. "Marsh Flowers" ostensibly chronicles some of the more unpleasant flora in the salt-marsh and sea-side town, but it is a short leap to the metaphor comparing the "poisoned stings" of the "fiery nettle" to the harsh treatment from small-town opprobrium. Britten sets paired voice against one another (this time S/T and A/B) and the angular descriptors of the flora are exchanged in sinewy lines with short, dissonant stings. Britten sets the pairs in contrary motion so that crossing melodies mean crossing harmonies, peppered with mixed thirds (ie: a & a# simultaneously). The "fiery nettle" is set with a dramatic portamento (slide) up the octave for all four voices, and its "poison'd stings" painted with a texture that performs the poetic image with twisted melodies, harmony and rhythm. A double canon (T imitating S, B following A) mirrors the image of the fern growing "in ev'ry chink." The wind-tossed seaweed inspires another colorful bit of word-painting, as the paired voices sing their dissonant duet in contrary motion so they are literally "rolling up and down."

John Clare was a younger contemporary of Crabbe and one of the greatest of England's unschooled poets. Like another Britten muse, Christopher Smart (poet of "Rejoice in the Lamb" and source of my cat Jeoffry's name), Clare was institutionalized for madness. Or what is known today as bipolar disorder. So, another melancholy and troubled artist, another outcast & loner, and another muse. "Evening Primrose" is the beautiful heart of the cycle, an intimate, shimmering part-song about a delicate flower that blooms once, and only at night (=out of sight). A rustic poet, Clare (like his more famous Scots elder, Robert Burns) was fond of the double-entendre erotic image (this trait runs through every generation of poets, and the best of them, like Robert Frost, hide it beneath other layers of significance). Thus, the sensual: "And dewdrops pearl the evening breast," The sexual awakening: "The evening primrose opes anew," and, among others, the impotent: "it faints and withers and is gone." This is meant in NO way to demean, debase (or deflower?) Clare's poetry but is offered as a legitimate reading of the poetic images. I don't think Britten was conscious of these images in his setting. His setting reflects a tuning to the images of the flower as sensitive, ephemeral soul (like the creative work and the creative artist). The song alternates between exquisitely harmonized homophonic phrases, and brief oscillating lines in canon. The only extroverted moment in this beautiful miniature comes at the lines "Thus it blooms on while night is by;/When day looks out with open eye," and thus resembles that late blaze of glory before sunset, the last surge of life before death, as the poem concludes:
"Bashed at the gaze it cannot shun,/It faints and withers and is gone."