The Rainbow Snake - Orchestral Songs and Symphonic Works
The Rainbow Snake - Orchestral Songs and Symphonic Works
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Erik Norby (1936-2007) by Klaus Møller-Jørgensen
In his first works from the beginning of the 1960s Norby experimented with dodecaphony (Two Songs to Texts by Rilke, 1963) and serialism (Music for Eight Sextets, 1966). But like most of the other Danish composers of the time, he quickly abandoned that path.
However, Norby's further career differs from that of many of his contempo-raries, in that his music from the end of the 1960s (Sinfonia da requiem, 1968) and right up until the 1990s is to a greater or lesser degree coloured by a Late Romantic ‘sound'. This is especially true of vocal works such as the Wunderhorn songs (1972), the Herbst-Lieder (1989) and the Södergran songs (1992), while in other works it lies rather as an under-current that colours the overall impression.
Norby is no ‘neo-Romantic', but he permits himself to make use of harmonic ele-ments that sound familiar and thus more accommodating than the work of many of his contemporaries. And he writes in familiar forms and uses the symphony orchestra in a way the audience is used to - and indeed does so with great ability and a sophisticated feeling for the many possibilities of the orchestra. On this CD this can mainly be heard in the three Rilke-Lieder, but also in both the Munch Trilogy and the Rainbow Snake. Together the three works give a good impression of Norby as a colourful, inventive orchestrator who is certainly a child of the 20th century, but is not afraid to write ‘filmic' music or to draw directly on the harmonic heritage of the 19th century.
The Rainbow Snake (1975)
The Rainbow Snake is Norby's true breakthrough work, commissioned by the Danish broadcasting corporation DR for the 50th anniversary of the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (now the Danish National Symphony Orchestra). The work was very well received by critics and audiences and was played again as early as 1976 at two festivals for contemporary music - at the Rostrum in Paris, and at ISCM in Boston.
It is a symphonic poem, inspired by the ancient Amerindian legend of how the snake became a rainbow and thus saved the people from drought. On the title page Norby states explicitly that the short version of the legend given here should be printed in the programme every time the work is performed. It is thus a decided piece of programme music in the tradition of Liszt, Smetana and Richard Strauss.
The legend is given thus in the score:
The Rainbow Snake is an Indian legend of how the rainbow appeared in the sky; about how a snake heard the laments of the Indian people over a long period of drought and infertility, and had itself thrown up in coiled form at the sky. There it uncoiled, and became longer and longer, until both its head and its tail reached the ground. Its arching back scraped the blue ice down from the sky.
The snake began to shimmer in all colours, the ice melted and after a long drought rain fell once more on the earth. The land came to life again, the water once more filled the dried-up river beds, and the roses bloomed anew.
Since then the snake has arched its supple body across the sky every time it rains on a sunny day.
The work lasts about 17 minutes and forms one continuous process that begins and ends identically with a clear climax along the way - like the snake that strikes the sky, and its head and tail, which both reach the ground. It was written for an extra large orchestra with 4 of each woodwind, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, extra percussion including two vibraphones, as well as harp, piano and strings. In other words the grand palette of sounds has been unfolded - and is set in motion.
At the same time it has a very dense texture: for long passages the first and second violins as well as cellos are split up into a whole three parts, the violas and double-basses into two. There is so to speak some ‘hustling for position' on the staves of the music, and the piece is typified throughout by a concentrated, compact sound. The harmonies are cluster-like, but with a distinct sense of a fundamental tonality; we clearly hear the changes in harmony along the way, but only occasio-nally can we hear clearly -identifiable chords.
The melodic material itself helps to emphasize this compactness: most of the melodic motion is stepwise, in full tones or semitones, and within a small spectrum, typically the interval of a third. Finally, the low instruments, from alto flute, bass clarinet and contrabassoon to the low strings, play a prominent role in large parts of the work.
All this gives the listener a sense of an enormous primal power that lies smouldering, just waiting to explode like a volcano; which is exactly what happens a good third of the way into the piece, after which the dense texture continues in the high register, with water vapour that becomes rain, which then returns to the earthly and the darker colourings.
The music begins in the depths, with low strings and winds, and moves very slowly upwards, expectantly and restlessly; the melody vegetates without actually developing. The timpani sounds precisely on every ninth beat, but the beats are felt to be quite random, because the harmonies change with the constantly shifting time signatures in the score.
After just under five minutes of near-stasis the music begins to develop a little more; for example one hears small laments over all the misery in the cor anglais and cellos respectively. A sudden outburst in the music - like the snake uncoiling and jumping up against the arc of the sky like a spring - ushers in an extended accumu-lation of energy, up towards the final climax, where the ‘arching' notes of the horns metaphorically scrape a hole in the sky-ice. The colours shimmer, new sounds are added, and a highly visual sound-image of the rain emerges: first drip-wise in pizzi-cato basses, then more persistently in the vibraphones, and finally as a decided shower in a string texture that recalls American minimalism.
The rain abates again, the music returns to a state like the one immediately before the cloudburst. A new ascending build-up illustrates the earth awakening very slowly. And finally the piece falls calm in an abbreviated version of the beginning.
The three songs were written for mezzo-soprano and full symphony orchestra including harp, piano and celesta. The texts are by the Austrian-Czech Symbolist poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). The work was commissioned by DR.
Both text and music form three short, highly concentrated statements about the nature of love; they are more statements than elements in a true development, and the music is first and foremost a picturing of the content or meaning of the text.
The poem Liebesanfang (Birth of Love) looks back at the first loving smile and the first stirrings of love. There is a pronounced Romantic aura over the music in the first strophe, with an almost Wagnerian harmony and melody strongly coloured by chromaticism. The cello has an important role as a counter-voice to the vocal part, while flute, horn and harp among other instruments paint the nature mood that is also in the text.
The second strophe is a reflection on this early falling-in-love, which may be untroubled but at the same time hints that love is not unproblematical, as symbolized by the swan which divides the lake in two. In the music a change of mood appears; not a particularly drastic one, but the texture changes - for example the motion quickens and several voices sound at once.
With the third strophe the music partly returns to nature-painting, but is also coloured by the greater state of unrest in strophe 2. The text is once more pure rapture over love, but the music hints at an echo of reflection. After the last sentence the music returns to the first bars of the short orchestral introduction and ends with a minor-sounding chord that remains hanging and has a further dissonant note added.
Die Liebenden (The Lovers) begins with a long instrumental introduction, dominated by minor-sounding and cluster-like sounds with an ominous feel. But shortly before the singer begins, the light breaks through, marked by among other things the harp and a brighter, more major-sounding tonality; as if the music wants to say ‘See how everything looks up and brightens when two lovers find each other and become one'.
The poem describes how two lovers can rise and grow greater together than they were separately. The music is typified throughout by magnificent gestures and rather recalls Richard Strauss with a large, compact orchestral texture and an effer-vescent, wildly growing melody and harmony.
The last song, Wir sind nur Mund (We Are But Mouth), begins like the preceding one with a long instru-mental introduction with the same fateful minor-coloured basic mood. But this time there is no light that breaks through.
The poem describes the gulf between what we say and what we feel - between mouth and heart; and how the mouth cannot contain the great sorrow or the great joy that the heart is full of. A small fateful motif of three close-lying notes that turn repeatedly around themselves appears in the low strings and clarinets at the end of the introduction and leads up to an intense discharge of energy before the singer comes in. The small melodic turning motion reappears in varied forms several times in the course of the first strophe.
The fate motif and the subsequent discharge of energy reappear clearly in con--nection with the second strophe's words about how the heart nevertheless breaks through at some point, and the music reaches its climax just after the word ‘scream'. It falls calm on the last sentence about how one is then transformed into a whole human being with a soul and a face.
Edvard Munch trilogy (1978-79)
The Munch trilogy has the subtitle (A Requiem) Symphonic Transformation for Orchestra and Mixed Choir after Three of Edvard Munch's prints\. On the title page of each movement there is furthermore a brief quotation from the poet Ole Sarvig's \\Edvard Munch's Prints\\, where Sarvig offers his personal interpretation of a num-ber of Munch's lithographs.
The work is thus not just a musical reproduction or interpretation of three Munch pictures, it is a transformation under the influence of Sarvig's interpretation on the one hand, and of the association with the Catholic Requiem Mass on the other. Once more the music is written for full symphony orchestra with extra percus-sion as well as harp, piano, celesta, vibraphone and choir.
In Scream Norby links the terrifying scream from the well known Munch picture (which exists in several versions) with Judgement Day, the Dies Irae. The movement begins with a single long note in the basses and a bell tolling far away. The choir sings the Introit from the Requiem Mass: \\Grant them eternal rest, Lord, and let eternal light shine upon them\\. But the pious wish is interrupted several times by violent, ominous chords; the solo flute spins out a long melody as if it wants to carry the prayer to Heaven. The choir comes in with an \\a-a-a\\ - the scream itself? - ever more penetrating and supported by the orchestra. A fateful march with the snare drum and Judgement Day ‘trumpets' leads to the Dies Irae of the choir. The scream comes back and mixes in with the progress of the intensifying march. Everything explodes in a short, intense Bernstein-like cacophony of stag-gered rhythms and noisy percussion; chaos seems to reign. The chaos is dispersed by bells and brasses and sudden stillness. A few more aftershocks from the violent events follow, but fundamentally the music falls quiet. Nevertheless, a fateful echo of the scream remains in the air right until the end.
On the title page of The Sick Child Norby quotes a whole two Sarvig texts, both of which speak of the young, dying girl in the picture as \\transparent\\. An ethereal transparency is clearly evident in the instrumentation, which includes harp, celesta, piano, harpsichord and vibraphone. There is a consistent sense of stillness and a concentrated, resigned trembling. The movement has a simple cyclic form with a return to the beginning and can be seen as an elegiac, wordless interlude between the two intense outer movements.
The music begins with a long, elaborated flute melody that alternates with the broken chords of the harp. Slowly the movement becomes fuller, up to the point where the choir sets in with \\a-a-a\\, although one cannot speak of any actual climax. It is tempting to hear this \\a-a-a\\ as a repetition of the scream from the preceding movement, now in a resigned form. The music falls calm again and the recapitulation comes in as an abbreviated version of the beginning.
Munch's Funeral March is described in the Sarvig quotation as a mocking procession that ‘bears the totality of life up from all that has lived'. Norby links the Munch lithograph with the whole Lacrimosa section of the Requiem, which is about the tearful day when mankind comes before his Judge.
After a number of harsh Judgement-Day-like chords the timpani begins the actual funeral march. The violas come in with a melody that the choir uses afterwards for the Lacrimosa text. The melody has a lamenting expression with descending semitones, and this lamento feeling colours large parts of the movement. With the text section Huic ergo - \\Spare him, therefore, o Lord\\ - the music moves into a painfully screaming supplication to grant eternal peace. After the \\Amen\\, silence descends and there follows a short interlude in the form of a chorale sung by the choir (but without words) until the whole orchestra and choir again come back to the Lacrimosa melody (both with text and as \\a-a-a\\), which builds up to the final climax on Ex favilla: \\From the dust now mankind rises\\. It all ends in a sudden still-ness that merges into a very long fade-out in high strings, woodwinds and vibra-phone - pure ethereal sound. Before everything dies out the choir comes in one last time with a descending \\a-a-a\\ as a last trace of the scream from the first move-ment: eternal rest has descended.
Klaus Møller-Jørgensen is a music journalist and freelance programme producer for DR. He also works as an information officer for the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus.