Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sacred Groves - 2

And when the sun sets dimmed in eve, and purple fills the air,
I think the sacred hazel-tree is dropping berries there,
From starry fruitage, waved aloft where Connla's Well o'erflows;
For sure, the immortal waters run through every wind that blows.

-from Connla's Well by George William Russell




I can’t get very far into this topic without thinking about a composition by John Williams, something quite different from the film music for which he is best known.

His Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra (Five Sacred Trees) is comprised of five movements, each representing a tree from ancient Celtic mythology. The work was commissioned in 1995 for the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic, and was premiered by bassoonist Judith LeClair. The subsequent
recording featuring LeClair and the London Symphony is lovely, and also features works by Hovhaness and Picker, (modern and yet accessible compositions, all). The Williams concerto really is a sound track to the sacred grove.

Here are the liner notes by Jamake Highwater (and I especially appreciate his summation):


As we become increasingly aware of the damage done by the destruction of our forests, it is illuminating to discover that our ancestors, many thousands of years ago, prayed to the spirits before felling a tree. One prayer was appropriate for a maple, another for the elm, the ash, and so on.

The English poet, Robert Graves, writes of these prayers, which I have been unable to find, but which nonetheless, have moved me to compose this music featuring the bassoon, itself a tree.

This is all the result of a request for a concerto by the great bassoonist Judith LeClair, whose unparalleled artistry is a mystery and a wonder in itself.

I
Eó Mugna, the great oak, whose roots extend to Connla's Well in the “otherworld,” stands guard over what is the source of the River Shannon and the font of all wisdom. The well is probably the source of all music, too. The inspiration for this movement is the Irish Uillean pipe, a distant ancestor of the bassoon, whose music evokes the spirit of Mugna and the sacred well.

II
Tortan is a tree that has been associated with witches and as a result, the fiddle appears, sawing away, as it is conjoined with the music of the bassoon. The Irish Bodhrán drum assists.

III
The Tree of Ross (or Eó Rosa) is a yew, and although the yew is often referred to as a symbol of death and destruction, The Tree of Ross is often the subject of much rhapsodizing in the literature. It is referred to as "a mother's good," "Diadem of the Angels" and "faggot of the sages". Hence the lyrical character of this movement, wherein the bassoon oncants and is accompanied by the harp!

IV
Craeb Uisnig is an ash and has been described by Robert Graves as a source of strife. Thus, a ghostly battle, where all that is heard as the phantoms struggle, is the snapping of twigs on the forest floor.

V
Dathi, which purportedly exercised authority over the Poets, and was the last tree to fall, is the subject for the close of the piece. The bassoon soliloquizes as it ponders the secrets of the Trees.

Somewhere in a forgotten land and a forgotten time, the wind mingled with the leaves of sacred trees. Dumbfounded by a melodious sound, humankind paused in amazement to listen. Out of silence music was born.

There are many different tales about the magic and majesty of trees-stories more ancient than our longest memories. In the legends of almost every culture there is a sacred tree standing at the center of the world. In the dawn of the Near Eastern cosmos the tree of Eden stood at the heart of paradise. At the center of the world of the ancient Maya there was another sacred tree called the ceiba. And on the African veldt there are other sacred trees, standing alone and knurled in the midst of dusty villages.

Even in the lore of pre-Christian Europe, there arc many Celtic legends about a grove of five sacred trees. In every hallowed land there are still holy people who sit beneath wind-blown branches. They are the prophets, the soothsayers, and the storytellers of their people. In the shadow of the sacred trees they tell the tales of their tribes, stones that flow from generation to generation like a vase and ancient river. The enure history of humankind resounds with the miraculous music of wind among the branches of sacred trees.

Composer John Williams has heard this rustling music of the leaves. Startled into his own awakening by stories about the mythic Five Sacred Trees, he created an exceptional musical tapestry for orchestra and bassoon, an instrument that Williams believes is "haunted" by the spirit of the tree from which it is made. His music reflects the composer's profound veneration of the forest. "Within the tree community," he tells us, "there lies more music than anywhere else in the Western world. It is impossible to stand under the high arching boughs of ancient trees and not wonder if [he architecture of cathedrals was not born of just such an experience."

The Five Sacred trees, in the form of a Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra, consists ot five contrasting movements that eloquently evoke each of the legendary trees of Celtic myth: Eò Mugna. a symbol of the Sturdy oak, begins with solo bassoon, a deep throated voice that lends a somewhat solemn mood to this lyrical homage to the enduring oak. Tortan is John Williams' tribute to the mythic tree associated with witchcraft, which he interprets with a spritely dance tune for fiddle and bassoon, Eò Rossa, or the Tree of Ross-the yew, which summons the rhapsodic powers of destruction and recreation, begins with a delicate theme for solo harp followed by a long, lean line for bassoon over harp accompaniment. Craeb Uisnig, the Celtic name for the ash, a tree that is often a symbol of strafe, brings on an agitated theme, punctuated by drum beats, glissandos, and a rousing series of plucked rhythms in the strings. Finally, there is Dathi, a tree that is The muse of poets and, significantly, is also the last tree to fall in the legendary Forest of Celtic mythology, expressed as a lyrical, somewhat, melancholy duet for bassoon and flute.

John Williams has created a work of great lucidity, marked by the radiant clarity of chamber music-a lacework of delicate melodies that transcend the prosaic world and invite the listener to experience that strange, illusive music that can be heard only amidst the community of trees that still survives in the deepest forest.

Composer Williams discovered the tales of The Five Sacred Trees in the writings of the British poet and mythologist Robert Graves, whose landmark studies of pre-Christian lore and religion celebrate the primordial rites that joined the everlasting and ominous powers of nature with the fragile lives of humankind. In Graves' writings, John Williams found descriptions of prehistoric Celtic rituals that demonstrated a reverence for nature that has become increasingly rare in industrial nations. Among the ancient Celts, it was necessary to recite a specific prayer Before felting a tree-a ritual reminiscent of the lore of many other primal peoples, like Native Americans who recited prayers and wept before killing any creature.


John Williams' The Five Sacred Trees was commissioned in 1995 by the New York Philharmonic in celebration of its 150th anniversary. A brilliant performance by bassoonist Judith LeClair lends a mysterious and lyrical intimacy to this premiere recording by the London Symphony Orchestra.



From the outset of his musical career, composer Toru Takemitsu reflected the unique veneration of nature that is an intrinsic part of Japanese culture-visible in the poetic immediacy and sensuality of poets like Bosho and painters of minimalist Zen landscapes such as Tawaraya Sotatsu. Even today, when the influence of the West is virtually inescapable, the people of Japan do not have to discover their kinship with nature by searching into a forgotten past. In fact, their acquaintance with the natural world is something of an obsession. Takemitsu has carried this Japanese tradition of nature worship into twenti-eth-century music, creating a repertory of highly transparent and evocative tonal experiences in which color and light, rather than musical line, provide a uniquely poetic musical idiom. In this way, Takemitsu perpetuates the cosmic vision; of Japan at the same time that he mingles Eastern and Western influences due, at least in parr, to his strong affinity for the music of Claude Debussy, whose colorist compositions were, ironically, greatly influenced by Asian music. Tree Line, composed in 1988, is a perfect representation of Takemitsu's musical voice. As the composer explained, the tree line of the title refers to a row of acacia trees that stood near the mountain villa that served as his workshop. Takemitsu composed the work as an homage to the dauntless serenity of the trees and their power to inspire an overwhelming sense of time and endurance. For, as the composer noted in a collection of essays (From the Space Left in Music), trees symbolize the visualization of time through their annual rings that are always subtly different, year by year, marking the silent passage of time. Tree Line is a perfect miniature, delicately spinning, note by note, its own vision of time as an element of sound.

The highly layered and luminous music of Alan Hovhaness, with its distinctive Armenian and Far Eastern flavor, is a singular example of composition wrought in the isolation of the West Coast, far from the influences of main-stream musical life. Composed in 1955, Symphony No 2, "Mysterious Mountain," was strikingly ahead of its time, having far more in common with the visionary compositions of late twentieth-century composers like Arvo Part and Henryk Gòrecki than the nationalistic works of Hovhaness' American contemporaries, Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland. By far the most popular of the repertory composed by Hovhaness, "Mysterious Mountain" recalls the so-called "painters of the sublime"-those American painters of the nineteenth century, such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt of the Hudson River School-whose passionate images of unbounded landscapes expressed an American idealism and mystique, an envisioning of a nature that is far larger than life. Like those painters, he uses a massive canvas, a fervently romantic brush stroke, and the inspiration of a greatly outsized natural world devoid of human presence. "I named the symphony," Hovhaness explained, "for the mysterious feeling chat one has in the mountains-not for any special mountain, but for the whole idea of mountains."

For all of its unlimited industrialization, the United States has retained a keen delight in the out-of-doors which is, doubtlessly, one of the reasons Europeans are somewhat perplexed by the persistent American tradition of setting aside precious land as national parks rather than creating more industrial parks, And, yet, the paradox of American industrialism and American conservationism is doubtlessly symbolic of a unique sensibility found in the United States. Composer Tobias Picker reflects this American paradox, in his propulsive and urbane works that contrast markedly with his highly romantic and nostalgic pieces like Old and Lost Rivers (1986). This native of New York City comfortably straddles two worlds: an internationalism that is rarified and highly cosmopolitan, and, on the other hand, a far more intimate and personal affinity with the natural world that conveys an accessible and romantic spirit. Old and Lost Rivers was one of a series of works created by a group of renowned composers for the "Fanfare Project"-short pieces commissioned by the Houston Symphony in celebration of the Texas Sesquicentennial year (1986). Many of the composers invited to participate in the Project-conceived by Tobias Picker, then Composer-in-Residence of the Houston Symphony - inevitably wrote rather grandiose fanfares, but Picker himself decided to compose a piece that is marvelously tranquil. As Picker explains, the name Old and Lost Rivers derives from a natural phenomenon-the network of bayous that lie east of Houston near the vast Trinity River, which snakes down from Dallas to the Gulf of Mexico. The bayous arc traces of the Trinity River that have been left on the land when the great river has shifted from time to time. In this way, the bayous are ghost rivers, curling lazily over the landscape-green and bird-filled when the weather is dry, and full of sluggish- brown water during the rainy season. The two main bayous are called Old River and Lost River. Where they converge, there is a sign that reads: Old and Lost Rivers.

All the music of this album is dedicated to a celebration of the world of nature that lies beyond human frailty. It is music that denies the Western idea that nature is only a resource rather than an integral part of our lives. The composers of this music represent a small group of visionaries, who evoke the drama of the world rather than the drama of ourselves, and who have created a different kind of musical sensibility, one that is shamelessly melodic and profoundly touching.


-Jamake Highwater

2 comments:

scribe67 said...

Thank you for mentioning Hovhaness's beautiful Mysterious Mountain - a long time favourite in our house! 2011 happens to be the birth centennial of this great American composer and we recently found a dedicated web site honoring the Alan Hovhaness centennial.

GULAHIYI said...

Hovhaness is one of my favorites as well. Thanks for the information on the centennial, and nice blog, too!