A Christmas Offering

In recent weeks I have been revising and completing a piece which I first drafted a year ago: an Aubade for Christmas Morning, for 2-part trebles and string quartet. It is a setting of a short poem by the Finnish poet Bo Carpelan (1926-2011), in a translation by David McDuff, ‘The green tree, the blue sea’, from Carpelan’s collection The Cool Day (1961). It is not an openly ‘Christmassy’ poem, if there is such a thing. Indeed it doesn’t even mention that, or any other, season — nor indeed any time of day. It is extraordinarily simple in its means. A tree holds its arms above a child; the sound of the sea mingles with the child’s breath. These interactions with the child happened ‘years ago’, and yet the tree and the sea remain: through them we have a connection with that child. The child might be any child, but the apparent need to hold that connection, to feel that link, made me think of a particular child whose birth we celebrate in late December. My aubade echoes the procession of these ideas: the peace of the child; the passing of time; and the joy at the realisation that the connection with the child remains. Whilst I completed that first draft some while ago, the end has always nagged at me as being unsatisfactory. It was just too unabatedly joyful; its end to too decisively affirmative. Those who know me will testify to my curmudgeonliness. I am what is most properly known as a ‘grumpy bugger’ — but that is not to say that I don’t know joy. I merely express it in more introverted ways. One of those ways is through my music, where one can risk just a little joy, but — as in the case of the Aubade — it can’t be too forthright in its expression. So, I revised the end, the joy easing into a peace imbued with that joy; a peace born of the knowledge that we share those connections of the tree and sea that witnessed the child’s being. The Christmasness (if there is such a word) of the setting is affirmed in small nods to both ‘The Sussex Carol’ and ‘Angelus ad Virginem’ in the acompaniment.

There are, I suppose, two questions that might be asked: why did I turn to a Finnish poet, and why the curious and unusual accompaniment for string quartet? The answer lies in a short piece by the remarkable Finnish composer, Aulis Sallinen, whose work I admire enormously: Vintern var hård — ‘Winter was hard’ (click here to hear the piece on YouTube). When exploring Sallinen’s works, in the wake of my discovery of his music through the fabulous Barrabas Dialogues, I stumbled upon Vintern var hård. I was struck by its remarkable texture — treble voices and string quartet — and its austere atmosphere. However, I was frustrated, solely from a musical perspective, that the piece didn’t progress or develop significantly. I felt there was so much more scope for the thing. However, Sallinen is in fact absolutely correct in his conception of the piece! He sets a poem from Bo Carpelan’s 1969 poetry collection The Courtyard, which is a series of poems which draws upon Carpelan’s recollection of his 1930s childhood in Helsinfors. The collection is inhabited solely by what he describes as the poor; the beaten; the silenced. Austerity is both the subject and the means of the poetry. In the short poem set by Sallinen, there is insufficient bread for the dissatisfied ducks, never mind the people; the water is freezing and ‘even the money froze inside the bank’. ‘Saturday evening’, he writes, ‘could only be celebrated every second Saturday.’ Winter was hard. Therefore the unyielding austerity of Sallinen’s setting — the purposelessness in its staid demeanour — is wholly in keeping with the poem. He is taking heed of Carpelan, echoing absolutely his image.

To answer my musical thoughts, I thought I would explore a piece of my own for the ensemble; and what better way to pay homage to that work by setting Carpelan, as did Sallinen. I have a ‘thing’ about Finland–Swedish poetry, and indeed Nordic music, so was only too glad to become better acquainted with Carpelan’s work through the means of David McDuff’s invaluable translations. (If you are so inclined, I do urge you to seek out his translations both of Carpelan and, more especially, the contemporary Finland–Swedish poet Tua Forsström, the latter available from Bloodaxe.) And so my Aubade for Christmas Morning was born, set with the kind permission of Carcanet Press, the publisher of McDuff’s translation of a set of three collections by Carpelan, gathered together in a volume from Carcanet titled Homecoming (1993).

With such an esoteric accompaniment, I suppose one might perhaps turn one’s mind to arranging the piece for something more generally useful, like trebles and organ. The problem is that, if I were writing the piece for organ, it would be an entirely different piece: I would not have written it as it is. It has been conceived for the string quartet and I don’t think it would work satisfactorily on the organ. It might perhaps be feasible to arrange the accompaniment for organ with violin obligato, but I’m not wholly sure. For now, however, it will stand as it is, and I shall move on to other works that are craving my immediate attention. In writing the work in the way I did, I had in mind Lichfield Cathedral, where, until December 2014, I was bass Lay Vicar Choral in the cathedral choir. In recent years they had been having a string quartet join the choir to accompany Christmas morning eucharist alongside the organ. Sadly this hasn’t happened since I wrote the piece.

Do you have a quartet at your disposal alongside a girls’ or boys’ choir? Or are you perhaps performing the Sallinen and wondering about a companion piece? Do get in touch if you would like to see the score. I shall be having it printed before long to make it available.

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