Eriks Esenvalds: Choral Passion and Drops in the Ocean
One of life’s great joys is Radio 3’s CD Review every Saturday morning. And every now and then, it is a wonderful source for discovering previously unheard gems. Just a couple of weeks ago, there was a segment about Baltic Choral music. And I was gripped by the music of Latvian Eriks Esenvalds. I’d never heard of him until that moment. But I’m now a total convert.
Having been rather disappointed by the modern works sung at the Royal wedding (to be frank, I found them a little anodyne and joyless, though the Paul Mealor piece was more interesting than the Rutter; but then I’ve never been wild about Rutter), it was good to hear excellent contemporary choral writing. Having been out of choirs for years, I feel somewhat out of touch.
For those who know the work of Estonian Arvo Pärt, we are in familiar territory, but that is by no means to suggest that Esenvalds is derivative. Pärt’s music is beautifully spare, at times even bleak – but always utterly piercing in its honesty. Esenvalds creates a fuller, richer sound world – and even throws in some very strange effects of which the human voice is capable. Or at least he certainly does on a collection that has just come out: Passion and Resurrection, with Polyphony conducted by Stephen Layton. I’ve had the disk on a lot recently – and while the whole lot has grown on me there are some real standouts. This is not the place for an in-depth study of the pieces – though I would love to do that some time. Let me pick out two pieces. First is the title piece’s second movement.
The title work is a 4-movement piece for Good Friday and Easter. The opening will be very familiar to fans of saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s classic partnership with the Hilliard Ensemble, Officium. Esenvalds uses the same foundation piece, the simple but haunting Parce Mihi Domine (taken from the Vulgate translation of Job meaning Spare me, Lord, for my days are as nothing) by sixteenth century, Spanish composer Cristóbal de Morales. But at the point where one might expect a saxophone to ride the a capella waves, Esenvalds suddenly takes off in completely new and captivating directions. The first indication of this is the eventual arrival of shimmering strings weaving around the choir (in a ways reminiscent of Benjamin Britten). This is followed by a striking, arresting soprano solo. But as the piece continues from movement to movement, the different elements reappear from time to time, in a circular form.
The text is not the traditional passion narrative (as used by Bach or Part) – rather it is a patchwork of texts (from the OT, gospels and other ancient eastern and western Christian liturgies). But the overall effect is stunning.
Passion & Resurrection – part 2
Here is part 2 of Passion & Resurrection. The brutality of the crowds chanting for the crucifixion of Jesus is palpable from the 10-fold, unblinking and unrelenting repetition of Crucify. And then, we hear Christ’s overwhelming declaring of forgiveness from the cross. Soon after this the initial de Morales piece returns, providing an extraordinary relief after the high drama of the crowds. Listen in here from one recording which is effective if rather muffled, and not nearly as clear or refined as the Layton performance.
The following two movements are equally wonderful – the fourth providing a breathtaking evocation of the Resurrection with writing that seems to capture the beautiful simplicity of an Easter Sunday dawn, followed by a triumphant and rousing 3-fold cry of ‘The Lord is Risen!’. But as if to remind us of the reality of our present need of dependence and humility before God, variations on the de Morales return in gentle and reflective prayer, and the whole piece ends unresolved, in recognition that this act of remembrance and joy will need to be repeated year after year.
My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. My father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done. (Matthew 26:38,42)
And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. When they had plaited a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand, they spit upon him: and they have bowed the knee before him. They mocked him, saying Hail, King of the Jews! And after they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify him. (after Matt 27:28-31)
Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)
(Translation from the Latin) My friend betrayed me by the token of a kiss: whom i shall kiss, that is he, hold him fast! That was the wicked token which he gave, who by a kiss accomplished murder. Unhappy man, he relinquished the price of blood, and in the end hanged himself. (Tenebrae Responsory for Maundy Thursday)
How great is thy love for mankind, O Lord! Thou bent down and washed Judas’ feet, although he denied and betrayed thee! (from Byzantine Liturgy)
A Drop In the Ocean (from a Prayer by Mother Teresa)
Another standout for me is this single piece. Again it is a patchwork of different prayers, but all related to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
It begins with the Latin version of the Lord’s Prayer (the Pater Noster), and then is joined by the famous prayer of St Francis, as well as words more directly associated with Mother Teresa. The piece is unsettling and strange, even experimental – introduced by weird whistling and breathing sounds (as though the wind was blowing through reeds) and then later accompanied by the men chattering underneath, which combined with the singing, conveys the ferocity of the storms of life. Then the real beauty of the work emerges as the soloist addresses Jesus himself with an exquisite prayer of adoration and commitment. The quote by Mother Teresa gives a haunting close to the piece with this wind-carried intonation of the last two words ‘the less’.
The 4 Elements of A Drop in the Ocean
- Pater Noster
- Peace Prayer of St. Francis
- Song of the Sisters of the Calcutta Mission
Oh, that I had the wings of dove! … I would fly away. I would flee far away. I would find my place of shelter far from the tempest and storm.
Ah, Jesus, You are my God, Jesus, You are my Spouse, Jesus, my life, my love, my all in all.
- Quote by Mother Teresa
My work is nothing but a drop in the ocean, but if I did not put that drop, the ocean would be one drop the less.
In performances, including this one from the University of Utah Singers, the choir gradually gets covered in a huge cloth, so that by the end it is completely hidden – an echo of being immersed in the ocean – revealing an image of Mother Teresa herself. Amongst other things, it is a powerful metaphor for what choral singing at its best should be – a gathering of voices seamlessly knitted together to create a pure, single sound. I suppose from a theological point of view, there is always a tension between the individuality of every believer (which is clearly significant) and the sense of us being gladly swept up in the global purposes of God. Perhaps, to be simplistic, the former is a western obsession and exaggeration, while the latter is more eastern.
What is interesting is that the original quote seems to hold the two in tension, while musically that would be very hard to convey. Still, it is a mesmerising sound and sight – as this video of a stunning live performance clearly proves:
Get the CD of Passion and Resurrection here.