1944

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SATB/String Orchestra
Secular text in English by HD (Hilda Doolittle)
Difficulty rating (1-5): 4

Premiered by The North Hills Chorale, directed by Thomas Koharchik in Pittsburgh, Spring 2006.


 

Here is the introduction to this piece as printed in the score:

HD’s poem Christmas 1944 combines the despair and devastation of world war with its antithesis, the traditional hope of the Christmas season. To effect such a drastic combination requires a three part journey. Part One begins with the evils of war (“we have had experience of a world beyond out sphere”) and its fallout; angles being driven from their proper place in the stratosphere (an obvious reference to bombings and aerial warfare), and the populace crippled by its numbed disbelief of their fate (“we do not see the fire, we do not even hear the whirr and distant roar”). Part Twp can be seen as taking place as a dram of a way station after death (hinted at earlier by the lines “are we here? or there?”)  or as simply in a place of refuge (foreshadowed form Part Three in the line “we think and fell and speak like children lost”). Part Two is a Christmas Carol-like traversal of past delights—remembrances of small keepsakes which may possibly be seen by the author as proof of her humanity and existence—especially proof of human worth, happiness and contentment, all things forbidden in time of war. Part Three seems to purposely recall another literary text, Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter. HD’s version of Rossetti’s manger scene synthesizes Parts One and Two into a final prayer of hope and request for forgiveness for all mankind. As the awful machinery of war drives the angels out of the skies, her hopes are that other human and heavenly actions and powers may eventually restore the world to its proper bearing.

During the war Doolittle resided in England, and would have been well aware of the Luftwaffe raids. As Coventry was especially hard hit by brutal waves of bombings, I have chosen to quote The Coventry Carol twice in this piece, for the first reason of association as well as for the fact that the original carol text is one of the darkest we know. The first quote accompanies HD’s part One text and one could imagine that the King Herod verse is being brought to mind as the violin one soars above the carol melody like an errant organ quint stop or cipher, stratospherically whistling like a bomb on its way to a dreadful destination. The carol, whose melody line is sublimely intimate, is quoted later in a more conciliatory and much gentler section of the text/music. HD herself makes reference to Dresden China, and while it may simply be a coincidence on her part, I feel that my Coventry Carol quote and her mention of Dresden tie together on a certain level, as Dresden became something of a German counterpart to Coventry. Dresden was first bombed heavily in November 1944, shortly before the poem was written, and then later in the infamous, unrelenting firebombing raids. The other musical quote is the J.S. Bach chorale Beside thy cradle here I stand from the Christmas Oratorio, which resonates on many levels—the Christmas theme in general, and the oratorio text, which, while not used directly in this piece (I have set HD’s text to Bach’s notes) speaks of a manger scene of hope and a sacrifice.

As HD’s poem makes constant reference to us here on earth, and to the angels and warfare in the stratosphere, I have attempted to portray this by using a significantly wide range of tessitura in the strings. From the oft-used lowest E in the double bass up to the often stratospheric lines in the violin one, the goal was to paint a musical picture of HD’s words. I have also tried to capture other elements as well. For instance, for her musings in and out of reality (or perhaps one could say remembrance and “misremembrance”) on her priceless symbols from the past, I have set the music as something of a dream-waltz. However, the music is never truly a waltz, as it shifts from ¾ time to 6/8 and 7/8; in other words, any sense of a true waltz is always slipping out of one’s grasp, and the harmonies in this dream also threaten to veer polytonally out of control. Also, the main key of the entire piece, e minor, seems to resonate here as one of sadness, and is particularly poignant when it accompanies HD’s final requests for forgiveness.

This piece can be sung by a chamber choir with strings one on a part. If performed this way the strings should play out quite often is a soloistic way. For larger choirs, a larger number of strings would be needed.

Complete perusal score available upon request.

What others say:
"Great choral music is centered around great text.  In Paul Carey's "1944", musical sensitivity is given to HD's beautiful and profound descriptions of the realities and confusions of war. The words control the entire spectrum of tonality and steer this composition into a challenging and powerful presentation. 

When Paul came to visit with the North Hills Chorale, his first priority was engaging the choir in discussions about "Christmas, 1944". In our earliest communications, Paul indicated the importance of focusing on the text and allowing the words to truly have meaning. One simply cannot perform "1944" and not be changed to some extent. It is a very mature piece for a mature ear and a thoughtful mind. I will forever value the opportunity that I was afforded when we premiered his music. For us as a choir, his challenge raised our musical bar, and for myself as a young conductor, I couldn't have asked for any greater gift!"

Thomas Koharchik, Director, North Hills Chorale, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

 


TEXT

I

The stratosphere was once where angels were;
if we are a dizzy and a little mad,
forgive us, we have had
experience of a world beyond our sphere,
there—where no angels are,

the angels host and choir
is driven further, higher,
or (so it seems to me) descended to our level,
to share our destiny,
we do not see the fire,
we do not even hear
the whirr and distant roar,
we have gone hence before

the sound manifests;
are here we here? or there?
we do not know,
waiting from hour to hour,

hoping for what? dispersal
of our poor bodies’ frame?
what do we hope for?
name remembered? fault forgot?

or do we ask to rise upward?
no—no—not to those skies;
rather we question here,
what do I love? 

what have I left un-loved?
what image would I choose
had I but one thing, as gift,
redeemed from dust and ash?

I ask, what would I take?
which doll clutch to my breast?
should some small tender ghost,
descended from the host

of cherubim and choirs, speak
‘look, they are all here,
all, all your loveliest treasures,
look and then choose—but one—

we have our journey now,
poor child—come’

II

A Dresden girl and boy
held up the painted dial,
but I had quite forgot
I had that little clock;

I’ll take the clock—but how?
why, it was broken, lost,
dismantled long ago;

but there’s another treasure,
that slice of amber-rock,
a traveler once brought
me from the Baltic coast,

and with it (these are small)
the little painted swallow—
where are they? one, I left,
I know at a friend’s house;

and there’s that little cat
that lapped milk from my tray
at breakfast-time—but where?

at some hotel perhaps?
or staying with a friend?
or was it a dream?

a small cat with grey fur;
perhaps you may remember?

        
it’s true I lent or gave away the amber?
        the swallow’s somewhere else in someone’s house,
        the clock was long ago, dismantled, lost,
        the cat was dream or memory or both;
        but I’ll take these- is it too much?

 III

We are a little dizzy
and quite mad,
but we have had
strange visitations
from the stratosphere,
of angels drawn to earth
and nearer angels;

we think and fell and speak
like children lost,
for one Child too, was cast
at Christmas, from a house
of stone with wood for beam
and lintel and door-shaft;

go— go—there is no room
for you, in this our Inn:

to Him, the painted swallow,
to Him, the lump of amber,
to Him, the boy and girl
with roses and lover-knots,
to Him, the little cat
to play beneath the Manger:

        if we are dizzy
       
and a little mad,
        forgive us, we have had
        strange visitations
         from the stratosphere

 



 

  

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