C.87 - "Blow, blow, thou winter wind"

Composed: 22nd October to 8th November 2015

     This was a piece that was my submission to the annual university carol competition, in which a few pieces written by students were chosen, rehearsed, and performed alongside the Christmas carol service at the Cathedral, attracting an audience of hundreds every year.

    I went ahead with searching for a text and came across this cruelly ironic piece of poetry by Shakespeare, "Blow, blow, thou winter wind":

 

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,

Thou art not so unkind

As man's ingratitude;

Thy tooth is not so keen,

Because thou art not seen,

Although thy breath be rude.

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:

Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:

Then, heigh-ho, the holly!

This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,

That dost not bite so nigh

As benefits forgot:

Though thou the waters warp,

Thy sting is not so sharp

As friend remembered not.

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:

Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:

Then, heigh-ho, the holly!

This life is most jolly.

 

     The text was remarkably simple, considering the general assumption that Shakespeare loved to create new words, and yet the text speaks of something – something very cruel through the comparisons of nature’s evil verses man’s evil (at least, from how I read it!). And so I decided that such a cruelly ironic text would be very fitting for a family-filled carol concert about the excitement of Christmas.

     The piece utilizes some intriguing experimental elements – particularly the sound of wind created through natural means (e.g. turning on the church organ, or creating (mature) wind sounds through the mouth). To this day, I have no idea how this piece would have sounded with live performers creating the sounds of the wind, and perhaps I will never get the chance to, but I felt that there could be no other way to write a piece of music about the winter wind without exploiting the voice in that way.

     Because I found the text to be both merry and sinister, the piece itself is, well, both merry and sinister. The 2nd section is incredibly jolly with its bouncy, active melodies, but at the same time, there is an incessant dissonance that crops up here and there and really disturbs the music unexpectedly, before returning to the clueless jollity.

    The 3rd and 4th sections are by far my favourite; the 3rd for its opening on the sweeping text "freeze", which has such wonderfully breathing chords that rise and fall with the natural voice of the wind. And the harmonies used are chilling, yet remain lovely and tight.

      On the line "though thou the waters warp", I did indeed read the stanza wrong, and instead wrote music to the text "though the waters warp", missing out the text "thou", much to my negligence. I considered adding it in by adjusting the rhythms, but it would not work the same way.

      In the 4th section, the falling and rising progression in the organ from bar 79 – 84 is my favourite progression of the piece. The voice leading is incredibly smooth, and the harmony even smoother. And it is a good joy to play on the organ, which I recorded once (because it is terribly simple to play that progression!).

     Nevertheless, the piece concludes on a bare 5th chord, not revealing whether it is really G major or G minor – a happy or sad text.

     I did submit the piece to the competition, but ultimately it was not successful due to what I at first thought to be the cruel text. However, upon attending the carol service later that year, and finding much to my surprise that someone else had written a piece to the same text, I became dumbfounded. So it wasn’t the text that excluded my piece, nor was it the duration (the competition organizer told me that the pieces should really be no longer than 3 minutes, yet the piece that used the same text as I used was well over 5 minutes), so I concluded that it was the addition of a (difficult!) organ accompaniment that made the piece unsuccessful in the competition, especially as only three rehearsals were available beforehand.

     You might be sensing a hint of jealousy here, and of course there is! But it was a pleasant fascination (and not something that occurs often) to listen to someone else’s interpretation of a text you yourself had simultaneously set to music. In secret, I had recorded it (shame on me!), and while it was a very contemporary piece with harmonies akin to Whitacre (most contemporary vocal music seems to follow that aesthetic nowadays), it was a surprising treat to hear another’s interpretation.

       Ultimately, it was a shame that the piece never found a performance, as that was likely its only chance to ever be performed, but being able to hear someone else’s interpretation of the same text was an experience I will probably never encounter again, and so even if my own interpretation was unsuccessful, it was worth it to hear another's.

Reminiscence written on 20th July 2016

Last updated: 20th October 2018

© 2019 Jonathan Shaw