Secular text in English by HD (Hilda Doolittle) Difficulty rating (1-5): 4
The North Hills Chorale, directed by Thomas Koharchik in
Pittsburgh, Spring 2006.
Here is the introduction to this
piece as printed in the score:
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
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.
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.
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!"
Koharchik, Director, North Hills Chorale, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The stratosphere was once where angels
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,
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
the swallow’s somewhere else in
the clock was long ago, dismantled,
the cat was dream or memory or both;
but I’ll take these- is it too much?
We are a little dizzy
and quite mad,
but we have had
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