Nordic Celebration of the Winter Solstice

I traveled to Cambridge this afternoon to attend the Christmas Revels, a celebration of the shortest day in song, dance, verse, and theater.  My niece introduced me to this spectacle, and although she is not singing in the chorus this year, I so enjoyed the productions I attended in previous years that I decided I couldn’t miss this year.  With me in the balcony of Harvard’s Sanders Theater, Row AA Seat 8, with a full house around me, the matinée performance this afternoon closed out the 48th season of Revels in rousing fashion.

Paddy Swanson, Artistic Director, introduced the story line in the program: haunted by the loss of his favorite uncle, the child Sven remains moody even as his household prepares to welcome Finland’s new ambassador at a Christmas party.  However, when Sven receives magical gifts, including a book and key, he is propelled into an alternate universe, populated by witches, snakes, and other fantastic creatures, where he experiences adventures beyond his imagining.

Music Director Megan Henderson chose a wide variety of music from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, most of which was unfamiliar to me, but of course haunting and beautiful.  In Part One, we watched folk dances and couples dances and listened to sacred songs and hymns, folk songs and ballads, prayers, and poems.  The last song before intermission was the audience favorite, Lord of the Dance, which we were invited to sing.

Part Two included a lullaby, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, popular tunes, a walking dance, Silent Night, the traditional round Dona Nobis Pacem, the Reinlender dance, a toasting song, the Sword Dance, a Christmas carol for St Lucia, hymns, and more.  The traditional Mummers’ Play was a send-up of Hamlet, but in which all ends well, as the dead are revived.  The performance ended with a recital of Susan Cooper’s The Shortest Day and with the audience singing the Sussex Mummers’ Carol.

I don’t think I can choose a favorite piece, but I have to say that the adaptation of scenes from the Finnish Kalevala epic were mesmerizing.  Props to set designer Jeremy Barnett, costumer designer Heidi Hermiller, lighting designer Jeff Adelberg, and the puppeteer Mark Ward.  As in past years, the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble and choruses were excellent.  I’d also like to acknowledge the musicians and their fascinating instruments: Sunniva Brynnel who sang and played the accordion and harp, Corey DiMario who played double bass and guitar, lydia ievins who played the Swedish nyckelharpa and 5-string fiddle, Loretta Kelley who played the fiddle and Norwegian hardingfele, Andrea Larson who played the fiddle, and Merja Soria who sang and played the Finnish kantele and percussion.  Master of Ceremonies David Coffin was the star of the show — with his musical talents and irrepressible humor and good will, he embodied the true spirit of Revels.

Tasso and the Sixteenth Century Italian Madrigal

On my lunch hour today, I drove to campus and joined a small group of a half dozen people in one of the conference rooms of Old Chapel; we were treated to a fascinating discussion of Torquato Tasso’s poetry by Professor Emiliano Ricciardi of the Department of Music.

A brilliant but troubled artist and scholar, Torquato Tasso (1544-1595) studied and worked in a number of Italian cities, including Naples, Rome, Urbino, Venice, and Padua, before settling in 1565 at the court of the Este family in Ferrara, where he composed his best-known literary work, Gerusalemme Liberata, and also published a philosophical treatise, Discourses on the Art of Poetry.

Though Tasso made his name with his epic poem, he also composed lyric poems such as are found in the nine books of the Rime, written between 1567 and 1593,  A number of these verses were set to music by contemporary Italian composers, who at the time were enchanted with the madrigal form.  Madrigals, or secular vocal music, originated in Italy during the 1520s.  These works usually consisted of twelve lines, with no fixed rhyme scheme.  There were a number of historical trends which converged at this time and contributed to the popularity of this form: renewed interest in the Italian language, the migration of trained composers from across the Alps into the wealthy and cultured Italian courts, and the availability of printed secular music due to the recent invention of movable type.

As a poet, Tasso had a distinctive conception of poetic form.

First, he believed strongly that a poem should be teleological: that is, it should be arrive at a meaning at the end.  This strategy, he believed, elevated the work and gave it gravitas.  An example is his poem Geloso amante (Rime 99), which consists of two quatrains and two tercets, in which sentences do not stop at the end of lines, and the hypotheticals build tension until the narrator’s final thought in the last line.  Another example of this emphasis on trajectory is Tasso’s Amor l’alma m’allaccia (Rime 48).

Second, Tasso believed that a poem should be logical but witty, that its form should be syllogistic with a conclusion like the punchline of a joke.  An example of this philosophy is Tasso’s Non è questa la mano (Rime 47).  It begins with an interrogative phase, contains a middle meditative section, and ends with a gnomical assertion (“E se piaghe me diè baci le renda”).

As one scholar wrote, “In the madrigal, the composer attempted to express the emotion contained in each line, and sometimes individual words, of a celebrated poem.”  Indeed, Tasso’s poetry was popular with madrigal composers.  The poems mentioned above, Geloso amante and Non è questa la mano, were set to music, the former by Luzzaschi in 1576 and the latter by Giovannelli in 1588.

Professor Ricciardi ended his talk with a discussion of Tasso’s Ecco mormorar l’onde (Rime 143), which was set to music by Claudio Monteverdi in 1590.  The poem’s six opening lines set the scene; the five-line middle section emphasizes rhythmic repetition; the ending tercet resolves the tension.  Mimicking this form, the composer wrote contrasting rhythms for the high and low voices, and then used a long, descending base line to end the composition. The group La Venexiana performed this madrigal beautifully; you can hear them on youtube.