Friday, December 12, 2014

Happiness Month One-Off - Charles Villiers Stanford's The Bluebird

Christmas is unique among holidays in that it promotes Classical music like no other, with many people only listening to Classical music when attending Christmas concerts and having deep associations between Christmas and specific Classical genres like choral music and Baroque music.  As choruses get an enormous amount of exposure this time of year some works I was previously unfamiliar with have been popping up, and one that has me completely entranced is a secular song by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924).  One of the only Irish composers to gain international stature, Stanford was among a generation of British composers, including Hubert Parry and Alexander Mackenzie, whom scholars credit with revitalizing British Classical music and paving the way for younger, more popular and more influential composers like Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and an article on Stanford wouldn't be unwelcome on this blog.  However, the song of his in question flies far above the other works of his I've heard, and does so with the simplest of subjects - a bluebird.

The lake lay blue below the hill,
O'er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue,
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught his image as he flew.

Part of a set of six song after words by Mary Coleridge, "The Blue Bird" draws some of the most intense yearning out of very few musical material, chiefly the use of a mid-chord pedal note held throughout its first major phrase:

The note is the root of the song's key, but holding it throughout the harmonic movement gives it a conflicted identity, threatening to drag down the work but, through the hushed volume and deft voicing, manages to illuminate it instead, a kind of gentle pressure on the heart.  Stanford sets aside one soprano as a soloist, at first intoning a single note, creating a tension out of its preciousness and fragility.  The song continues much the same, as tenuous as dream-silk, peaking with one of the most shockingly beautiful choral phrases since Allegri's Miserere Mei:

The music is repetitive only in being appropriate for the floating, haunted poem by Coleridge, its simplicity almost a question rather than an answer.  This emotional fermata is captured by Stanford's refusal to let his harmonies resolve, ending the piece on a minor vi chord without the fifth and featuring the eternal G-flat as its minor 7th.

I'm sure some of my readers will laugh at me for featuring a work as popular as this on a blog devoted to rarities, but "The Blue Bird" is rare in its own way, its writing out of its own time and place, seemingly existing in a faraway room with a single tree beyond its window.  It's also rare in that very few pieces can make me cry.  In a way there is a need within me for it to exist, much like I needed Bruce Simonds's Prelude on "Iam sol recedit igneus" to exist.  I was particularly moved by the recording below by the Finnish group Lumen Valo, and hopefully it makes for a worthy early Christmas gift for you all.  At the very least it makes me deeply happy, and for that kind of happiness to be inspired by a piece so modest is a great thing indeed.


You can view and purchase original art by the creator of the heading image here.

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