Album: Night Songs
Composer: Helen Grime
Conductors: Jamie Phillips and Sir Mark Elder
“Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind . . . Not here
Not here the darkness in this twittering world.”
– T.S. Eliot, from Burnt Norton
I’ve little patience with this kind of thing ?
This trite, post-modern, easy-listening.
I hoped for something far more challenging.
This isn’t avant-garde enough.
It really isn’t hard enough.
It isn’t avant-garde enough for me.
– from “The Radical,” by Wendy Cope
In case it isn’t quite clear, the quote above is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, mocking the pretensions of the snob who rejects all that is enjoyable in a bid to seem superior. For the longest time, such people have practically dictated the direction of serious music.
But, every dog has its day. Maybe It’s just me, but as I listen to new, serious music, I’m surprised to find that the works composed in the dissonant and minimalist tradition of Schoenberg, sounds that once seemed so new and shocking, are now stale and outdated. At last, we watch this style being edged out of the serious music repertoire, having lost its firm setting.
In its wake comes a romantic revival, a return to a way of thinking that values nature, rural life, social justice, love, and the full expression of profound emotion?values espoused by artist types across the spectrum in the West in the 19th century but eventually ousted by the Jazz Age with its urban glamour, existentialism, cynicism, and intellectual rigour.
But the early part of the twentieth century still contained elements of romanticism, and was, in itself, not yet a departure from romanticism?it represented romanticism’s engaging decadent period. Today’s Romantic Movement includes a return to the arrangements and orchestrations of early 20th century Russian composers, including Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Rimsky-Korsakov, and the important young Scottish composer Helen Grime is a shining example of how original work can be inspired by these composers.
Now at last we have Grime’s recording debut, showcasing her phenomenal ability as a composer. The fact that, outside her own inner circle of students and colleagues, She’s still a bit of an enigma is, thus, a bit surprising. There’s a surprising dearth of information about Grime online, which suggests that She’s either had her nose to the grindstone for the last 10 years or She’s a bit of a Luddite, the kind of artist who asks, “Why do I need my own website, really?”
Apparently She’s no slouch in the grindstone department; her instrument of choice is the oboe, an extremely difficult instrument to develop an embouchure for, but, oh, what a sound and what a repertoire; it was Beethoven who made the oboe almost an emblem of romantic music when he gave it a principal role in the third movement of his Ninth Symphony, using it to evoke a Middle Eastern flavour for Joy’s victory march.
To add to the early twentieth century ambience, there are musical tributes to Eliot (“Into the Faded Air”), Sassoon (“Everyone Sang”), and Bishop (“A Cold Spring”), Poets of this era often expressed the inner conflicts experienced by sensitive human beings during times of war and social upheaval, conflicts which might be seen in just as sharp relief today.
In the works that emerged in that time, we clearly see the artist’s angst in response to the suffering on this planet. Back then it was the holocaust, the depression, and ideological wars; the suffering today is new and, at the same time, old, and reference to the horrors of the early twentieth century and how art reacted to them is especially apt in our world of environmental destruction, rogue corporations, genocides, religious extremism, and economic inequality.
A note of hope can be found in Elizabeth Bishop’s “A Cold Spring,” a poem that voices the romantic propensity to seek healing in natural beauty?an idea with undeniable merit.
The album is magnificent, meticulously crafted yet gloriously free and reckless, spanning the full spectrum of orchestration from minimalist spareness to rich fullness. The feeling is sometimes dark, sometimes cautious and questioning, sometimes full of guile and contempt, sometimes innocent, sometimes victorious. Just like the well-examined life.
Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.