I am endlessly fascinated by the interaction of text and crafted sound in vocal music. Singing Britten’s “Hymn to Saint Cecilia” with Westminster Choir was a turning point in my appreciation of the richness of this text/music marriage. Over the course of a semester of rehearsals and a tour, Britten’s play with the words of his friend Auden grabbed hold of my imagination and still hasn’t let go. I even roped the piece and the poetry into a project for another class, because there were themes laced through the music that were persistently jangling around in my head for more attention.
Over the past year as I’ve entered the world of professional choir, I feel like I’ve gotten to experience more music in one season than I have in my entire life up until this point, and amidst the endless cycle of rehearsal and performance, I have distinctly missed the protracted rehearsal periods where a piece can reveal itself over time. As a professional singer, the responsibility to truly understand a piece by spending time in practice and study lies on me. I often do not have time to go much beyond the level of practicing for accuracy of pitch, rhythm, and technique, and I’ve felt a loss of deep connection with the music I’m encountering every day.
The rich programming intentions core to the mission of Verdigris have further increased my desire to be excavating below the surface of the pieces I am tasked with performing. How can I deliver a thoughtful, connected performance without having this deeper understanding?
In an effort to bring our followers into the current programming of Verdigris and selfishly satisfy some of my own musical needs, let’s take a closer look at “The Bluebird,” Charles Villiers Stanford’s setting of a Mary Elizabeth Coleridge text. This piece comes second on the launch concert program entitled “How to Fly,” a concert centered around quotes from the Wright Brothers’ correspondence while they feverishly worked to build a working flying machine.
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.
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge
This piece is one of eight Coleridge poems set by Stanford as a collection of partsongs. My most frequent interactions with Stanford happen in my staff singer position at a large Episcopal church in downtown Dallas. Most of his pieces that I’ve encountered so far are massive anthems, almost operatic in their vocal demands. “The Bluebird” stands in stark contrast to those previous encounters, showing a gentler side of Stanford as he delicately sets to music a brief flicker of reflected flight.
A soprano soloist floats above the choir for the entirety of the piece, while the other voices provide a glimmering pool of homophonic sound underneath. While hovering over the choir, the soloist alternates between delivering full lines of poetry and punctuating the choral lines with the word “blue,” which hangs quietly over the ends of the choir’s phrases like a shaft of light or lingering reflection. The piece ends with a feeling of suspension as it does not resolve to tonic, (for the people interested on a technical level, it lands on a ii7 chord). The soprano soloist is the final voice to sound, and she continues to sound even after the choir has subsided, an unfinished flight into the blue.