Sunday, September 16, 2007

Payback is a bi...

As some sort of karmic retribution for my last post on choral music, a simple, entirely conventional, slow-chorales Christmas carol got stuck in my head on the way home from Iceland. Being obsessive by nature and needing to get it out before it drove me nuts, I had to bow to inspiration (whatever that is) and write it down. Actually, it's something I've been wanting to write for years: a setting of Christina Rosetti's "In the bleak mid-winter". It's a slightly frightening prospect to take on a poem like this one, that's been set many times, and by two of my choral gods at that, Holst and Britten. But after writing some fairly far-out choral textures in the last year, I had a hankering for some triads, so I jumped in.

My initial contact with the poem came when I was about 20 through Britten's version, in the a capella cantata A Boy Was Born, an incredible, highly virtuosic display of compositional technique, text setting, and catchy tunes and textures, made all the more unbelievable by the fact that Britten was only 19(!) when he wrote it. Pieces like that make me wonder why I bother sometimes. I got a score and took it apart from beginning to end, but the one section that kept haunting me was the Rosetti setting, for the women's voices alone, and a melodic cameo for treble choir.

The idea is simple, really, but the effect is powerful, to say the least. Those chilly half-step dissonances on "bleak", the open fifths, it's all textbook, but transcends the bounds of obvious word painting. I especially love the way Britten turns the line "snow on snow" into the background texture for much of the piece, those soft, descending lines bringing a warmth to the music, enhanced by the trebles' melody. I've wanted to set the poem since that first experience, but couldn't get far enough from Britten to do it. I eventually settled for a more distant take on Britten's texture in the last movement of my much-mentioned piece Shiki, to a haiku by Santoka Taneda:

yuki e yuki
furu shisukesani

snowfall on snow

If I couldn't get away from Britten's sound, at least I'd change the words around a bit, and in a different language. Still, Rosetti's verse kept bugging me until now – note that I say "verse" in the singular – which ended up causing problems in the piece. The poem has a very subtly asymmetrical rhyme scheme, in spite of its being cast in a fairly conventional verse form. If you try to do a strophic setting of it, you end up with some awkward compressions and extensions of words, and strange, counterintuitive emphases placed on the wrong part of a sentence. This is exactly what happens in Holst's verse-form setting.
Despite the music being meltingly beautiful, I find that Holst often had to crowbar the words into place in order to fit the 4x4 phrase structure of the piece. If verse-form music doesn't work, the only option is a through-composed approach, which brings up the ever-present danger of chorales. I have absolutely no problem with the chorale texture itself; it's a perfectly valid form of text setting. But all too often, it ends up being a cop out, an easy way to avoid dealing with tricky rhythmic problems, much like the use of recitative to churn out a lot of text and information. Chorale phrases can be of any length without sounding too long, and such a texture is easy to rehearse.

Britten neatly sidesteps the problem by setting only the first of Rosetti's five verses, troping in additional verses from the Corpus Christi carol when the treble choir enters. He creates a more or less single-idea piece out of very few words from the Rosetti, putting the rhyming weight on the Corpus Christi lines, which are more symmetrical and do support even phrase lengths. I suspect that Britten's decision to do this may also have been due to the slightly maudlin turn the poem takes in subsequent verses into a display of stock Christmas imagery. And this is where I got stuck. Since the Britten setting had been foremost in my memory, I'd never paid much attention to the content of the later verses. A devout Catholic in my youth, I left the Church about 14 years ago, and as a rule don't set explicitly Christian texts. It's not due to any particular animus against the Church, but rather a desire on my part to be sincere and respectful of others' beliefs. If I couldn't utter the words of a devotional text in faith and sincerity, I won't set them.

So having set the first verse from memory and running up against the wall of Victorian sentiment, I was faced with a choice: use words I didn't like or mean – and the 16-year-old boy in me really couldn't set "a breastful of milk" with a straight face – or alter the poem significantly. I picked out the words I found least problematic and compressed the poem thusly:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Heaven cannot hold
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
In the bleak mid-winter.

Thronged the air,
The night rang
With their bliss,
But only mother
Worshipped with a kiss.

What can I give?
If I were wise, I would do my part
Yet what I can I give –
my heart.

The intent of the poem is preserved, I think, the fervent sense of expectation of a world in need of deliverance and individual sacrifice, but without all the cherubim-and-seraphim stuff of the original. My setting solution to the rhythmic difficulties is far less creative than Britten, with a solo soprano plainchant-like melody over a fifth drone at the beginning and end, and chorales for the middle two verses. It dances perilously close to the clichés of the Holy Minimalists, but I thought I'd give it a try anyway. Wanting to stay as far away from Britten and Holst as possible, I decided not to make a big deal out of those wonderful, singable, endlessly spinnable words, "snow on snow", keeping the flow of the poem as direct and unobstructed as possible. I'm pretty happy with the end result, and I'm hoping it will come across as pithy but effectively dramatic, though the voicing may yet require some tinkering. I was going to post a pdf of the score here and offer it as a Christmas gift to anyone who's interested, but I'm having web hosting difficulties and couldn't find a place to upload it. However, if anybody wants a copy, all they have to do is e-mail me. Our choir will be performing it on our seasonal concert in December.

1 comment:

Jarkko Hartikainen said...

Hey yo!

Korvat auki ry is - believe it or not - arranging "The Most Beautiful New Christmas Carols" concert at Töölön kirkko on Nov 27th!

Interested in contributing to the cause? I hear there is yet little music for the mixed vocal ensemble we are hiring (also performing is a male quartet and two or three acclaimed solo singers with piano accompaniment for the overall variety), so your new piece would most likely be ideal to the whole. Join the fun in a true Christmas spirit!

Even I'm exceptionally writing pro bono (for the YL quartet), just to make this thing finally happen ;)