Brahms and “Daughter”

I write to you again while in transit. Currently, I am sitting in a nearly vacant train back to Princeton where normal life will resume again. Today marks the end of Westminster’s spring break, but I’m trying not to think too much about that fact, lest I break out in some manner of stress-induced boils or pox. As always, the past few weeks have been a gale-force storm of intense music-making as the Symphonic Choir performed Ein deutsches Requiem with Maestro Daniele Gatti and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (not to mention the resplendent soloists, Diana Damrau and Christian Gerhaher) at Carnegie Hall on March 1st, and Westminster Choir performed our Spoleto Preview performance entitled “Daughter” last Friday night.

Performing the Brahms’ Requiem with the Vienna Philharmonic was a series of pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming moments strung together for an entire weekend. Yet again, I had special Alto 1 privileges as I was seated so close to the orchestra during the first rehearsal, I inadvertently restyled the bass trombonist’s hair with my choir folder every time I moved (my apologies for that. However, I must say that you rocked that tousled, Alfalfa-inspired cowlick look better than most would have in your place.) I couldn’t decide if I wanted to take notes the entire time to glean as much information from the rehearsal and performance process as I could, or merely bask in this incomparable experience. From observing the discrete differences between how American and European orchestras function to the rising to the challenge of delivering copious amounts of German text in front of native German speakers, I think the entire choir grew tremendously from performing this work.

Back in Hillman Performance Hall, Westminster Choir has been preparing our semi-staged choral production for Spoleto, titled “Daughter.” This program featured two works written on the subject of a young girl who loses her life to senseless violence: Carissimi’s oratorio Jephte and David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion. Although these works are separated by hundreds of years, they form a poignant counterpoint when paired together.

Both works presented all sorts of musical ground for us to explore. From the dramatic text painting of Jephte to the intricate simplicity of Match Girl, we were stretched in all sorts of directions in our preparation for the concert. There’s a part of me that never stops feeling like a five year old playing a pretend game whenever I perform a staged work, a particular fancy I was able to dabble in at length due to our staging of Jephte. (Granted, the tale of a father inadvertently offering up the life of his daughter as a burnt offering was a touch more morbid than my usual childhood games.) For the chorus members, backstories immediately sprouted lives of their own (I managed to obtain a husband, a daughter, and a sister in all of two seconds, along with a tortured past and a contentious interfamilial dynamic) whilst other members took on the actual roles within the work itself. Particularly inspiring to witness was sophomore Temple Hammen’s performance of the role of Filia as she stepped in for another member of the choir who was ill at the last minute. I’m not sure how I managed to sneak into a choir with such ridiculously talented and skilled members, but watching her and others perform their roles reminded me once again how blessed I am to be surrounded by this level of excellence every day.

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However delightful the musical challenges of these works were to face, to be entirely honest, the emotional content of the concert was overwhelming for me and many others. Simply singing the works is impossible—they cut into you too deeply to do so. As difficult as this has been, it has had a discernable effect on the environment in the rehearsal room. While a good number of us have no trouble openly crying in rehearsals/concerts/ during bathroom breaks (we’re emotional people), many of the usual barriers were broken down by singing this concert.

In light of the devastating nature of the program, one choir member took the time to turn a Westminster Choir tradition on its head as a way of reflecting on The Little Match Girl Passion. This tradition, reading poetry at key times, was infused with new meaning as this member wrote of poem of her own based on the text of The Little Match Girl Passion. She has graciously given me the permission to share the poem with readers here, a kindness for which I am deeply grateful.
We sing her story in awareness and apology, a disjunct, dissonant elegy.
We are sorry. We should be bound as you were bound – but with the
knowledge of our fate, yet
still too late to save ourselves.
Knowledge, we now know, is not always power. If in the last hour of
your truncated life, had you known, could you have begged your tired
heart to keep going?
Would you?
Carry your chattering, meek skeleton back to the shack of your
attacker, to be beaten of the blood of which you share?
So we will relive your few yesterdays to prevent someone’s tragic
You, Little Match Girl
Are big in our hearts.
Hear our notes, trickling down. May they fall like rain down upon your
poor face. To thaw your frozen heart, feel the warmth of tears not your own.
To feel warmth at all.
And we attempt to muffle our lament by hoping you are our angel, glowing
in your grandma’s embrace, facing the cold with your light, eating your
roast good by your large iron stove.
But others haven’t found the peace we wish you have. So we will
sing their story, too, within your words, observing a history that
cannot be repeated in action but only in tongues.
A tragedy, in telling, can be undone for others.
And we sing for your silent strife, your innocent life taken too soon, the
purity of your martyrdom. We will be a match that lights a candle
in memorial, to spark light where it’s dark, to melt each cold heart.
I will stay with you, Little Match Girl, when you are most scared.
When it is time for you to die
I will be your chilling lullaby.
Rest soft.
Because you closed your eyes, mine are wide open.
This is my penance.
This is my remorse.
Rest soft.

About Westminster Choir

Westminster Choir is composed of students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, a center for music study in Princeton, N.J.
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