Monday Musical Moment: “… so they say”

Justin Langham   -  
Good morning and happy Monday!
This weekend I had the opportunity to perform a concert at Pollard United Methodist in Tyler, Texas in east Texas and was fortunate to stay in a beautiful log cabin thanks to a friend of a friend type situation. The house sat on 200 acres of private property about 15 minutes outside of town, and was nestled next to a man-made lake with a fire pit next to it. Truly idyllic. I always feel that beautiful places like this beg for the perfect accompanying soundtrack. Many beautiful works of art have been inspired by such locations. Edvard Gried, and many other composers, are famous for having lived and traveled to beautiful and secluded locations in order to find inspiration.
There are many ways to find “inspiration” for a piece of music, or any other product of creativity: feelings of love and/or loss, a quiet evening sitting by the fire, or even something as simple as a dress, shoe, or a back country road. The reason I put inspiration in quotations is because it’s not always that easy to create something. Many times creating a piece of music can be a slow process that involves much frustration and searching for the right way forward. In those moments, a great poem or piece of text can often be a composer’s best friend!
While trying to find the perfect soundtrack in my head while roaming the 200 acres this weekend, one of the pieces I thought of was Dirait-on by Morten Lauridsen. The piece translates roughly to “So they say,” and comes from his larger work Les Chansons des roses or “Songs of the Roses,” with poetry by Rainer Rilke. Dirait-on is written in the form of a traditional Chanson (couplets with no clear refrain) and the subject of the rose, as with the other poems in the set, has no clear definition. The text is spoken by the lover of the rose, who speaks almost glowlingly about the rose’s self-centeredness, or maybe an admiration of its stated beauty. The rose has no need to insist upon its beauty, it just is. There is also a reference at the end of the poem to the myth about Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection (“refelction illuminated”) in a pool where he then wasted away and died when he realized his love was not returned. Rilke’s poem puts a beautiful spin on that myth where unlike Narcissus who was incomplete, the rose needs nothing to be complete and is totally suffient. See the English translation below:
Abandon upon abandon,
tenderness upon tenderness…
Your hidden self unceasingly
turns inward, a caress;

caressing itself, in and of its own
reflection illuminated.
Thus you’ve invented the tale
of Narcissus sated.

I looooove this piece, as do many others given its popularity. It is one of many examples of the most beautiful music being simple. Brilliant! But simple. In fact, the “inpiration” behind Dirait-on came in the form of a single harmony from which almost all of the musical material in the piece blooms. Using this harmony, Lauridsen creates a flurry of refrains of “Dirait-on” that creates a feeling that the choir is speaking to each other and drives home the meaning behind the poem. It’s almost as if the subject of the poem is hurt by the gossip of them that would speak ill of his precious rose; Do they understand the rose like he does? To me, this mood is perfectly captured by the tender melody set by the composer. Notice how the melody is written in a medium range so that all voice parts can sing it comfortably. This guy may have a future in choral music…
About the piece, Lauridsen says “I get emails saying I love this song how do I get it out of my mind. And I write them back and say there’s no cure. It was designed to go into your mind and never leave.” Music like this is why I fell in love with choral music, a sentiment I am sure is shared by countless others. Enjoy this performance by the Chamber Choir of Europe with the composer himself on the piano.
Have a great week!