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Night Gives Way to Day

Hymns to the Night, Tommie Haglund (Composer), Hannu Koivula (Conductor), Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra (Orchestra), Elizabeth Pitcairn (Violin)
Label: Phono Suecia, ASIN: B003QF0J6Q, Release July 2010 –

The Ich in Novalis’ lyrical cycle Hymnen an die Nacht embarks on the great journey inward—an inversion of the hero’s journey taken by Odysseus, Rama, and Zarathustra—to a great and eternal interior space where death gives way to eternal life as night gives way to day. Typically Christian in its appeal, yet also heterodoxical, the journey into the dark night and the world beyond are dynamic and ongoing personal creations, for, as Novalis observes, “in us or nowhere is eternity with its past and future worlds”. Such ideas found a place, unsurprisingly, in 18th century Germanic literature. On the pages of early Fichte we find movement between lower and transcendental selves, in Schelling a consciousness in nature itself, and in Swedenborg a record of dialogue with the archetypal spirits of his own deep subconscious, through which he came to a unique understanding of reality and its transcending levels. Though the great journey inward may appear at first dark and lonely, Novalis wrote, “how very different it will seem to us when this eclipse is over and the shadowing body is removed”. Similar ideas have haunted much of Christian mystical literature from its Old Testament precursors to the present, and have become, as it were, permanent mysteries in the genre, as much for the author of Psalm 23 as for St. John of the Cross.

Likewise, the Jag of Tommie Haglund’s symphonic poem for violin and orchestra, also entitled Hymnen an die Nacht, reconnoiters the abyss, beginning in a time of familiarity signified by the dialogue of the violin with the orchestra: the chaos of modernity and the orderliness of tradition. The violin is meek in its approach, but then gather moments of courage to press on as if into the desert at night, moments of reluctance, moments of trembling against the sublime wall of sound erected by the orchestra. Gradually, there are points of light, lines and basic Platonic forms, moments of universal memory that may only be the djinn come to tempt. The rosy tips of dawn trickle in and are overwhelmed again by the Night, which relents only in the final minutes with a passage of melodies which resemble John Dowland (of whom Haglund became fond during his guitar studies), perhaps representing a kind of momentary return to an older and simpler time, both in history and in the composer’s life—the soul of the composer breaking through prematurely only to realize the journey has just begun.

Novalis’ cycle is metapoetic inasmuch as the process of its creation was also the process of Novalis’ own journey and transubstantiation. Though we cannot yet say whether Haglund’s cycle is similarly metapoetic, other parallels to Novalis certainly are in evidence. Chief among them is the setting of the poet’s triadic conception of history: a state of harmony followed by one of disunity, followed again by a state of peace. Such conceptions were not uncommon among Continental writers, especially those laboring under the influence of both Greek mythology and Genesis 3. Hegel himself declared that the Prussian State was the highest political form, and therefore nothing less than the fulfillment of history. Haglund invokes not some literal Golden Age (a notion hardly borne out by archaeology) but the stages of individual spiritual ascent. Hymnen an die Nacht is in a state of constant transformation—not simply shifts in episode, but highly organic deaths and rebirths—building new forms from decaying polymers not yet turned to dust. This motif, used more often in ambient music than in classical composition, is better known as the phoenix, a metaphor well known to Novalis, who wrote in his journals that he regarded his own sorrow as a “quiet flame” that would consume him and enable him to rise from the ashes to a higher state.  This notion is repeated by many of the mystics, including St. John of the Cross, who wrote, “… the soul is purified in [the] forge like gold in the crucible … it feels both this terrible undoing in its very substance and extreme poverty as though it were approaching the end”.

The second piece on this CD, “Daughter of the Voice”,  is a reweaving of the 14th century Revelaciones Coelestes Book I of St. Birgitta of Sweden, as arranged by Stephan Borgehammar. It is a meditation on the symbiosis of Jesus and Mary, the agony of the crucifixion physically transmitted from son to mother. This is a rather unusual theme in both the literary and visual arts; indeed most Medieval and Renaissance depictions of Mary at Golgotha (Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece [first view] being the notable exception) depict her either saddened or merely stoic. In this piece Haglund, like Grünewald (and perhaps Mel Gibson), forsakes all classical values in pursuit of the intense violence and accelerated drama of the Passion of the Cross. But the work also expresses a semblance of hope, for even the self-doubt experienced by Jesus when he cried out “Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani” was soon tempered by the joy of believing he would soon be in paradise. Dual sopranos Jeanette Bjurling and Tua Åberg carry the weight of the pain without seeming pained themselves. In twining these emotions Haglund achieves a perfect distillation of ambivalence not heard by my ears since the final moments of The Burning World by Swans. Even the syncopated metronomes that introduce the piece serve to support the confusing dialectic of pain and joy. But the painful passage through the dark night, the escape from the self and one’s other enemies, and the passive purifications of the senses and the spirit are all necessary for the ascent to Mount Caramel, and the higher or purer self.

Röstens dotter, Daughter of the Voice

We awaken to the third piece, “To the Sunset Breeze” on the evening of a wretched hot day that seems to have lasted an eternity. But have we in fact awoken or are we awake within a dream? This piece is, of course, named for Walt Whitman’s poem (though evidently composed before ever reading the poem)—told by the unusual combination between guitar, harp, and string quartet—in which a cool breeze enters a room on a hot evening to relieve a weathered old soul . There is a pastoral European feel, conjuring images from Philip Oyler’s The Generous Earth and Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, and through this a cautious reluctance in the harp’s motion, perhaps reflecting the old soul, who, weak and diminished from his journey, may not truly believe the dark night has ended. In a sense this is the most difficult of the three pieces for me to penetrate, inasmuch as the mood is neither joyful nor melancholic, the tensions are never fully released, and the ultimate conclusion seems partial. Nevertheless, in spite of what may be my misunderstanding, Haglund has steered his own fate through music using, like Melville, a remarkable synthesis of Biblical and Modernist language.

This final movement is dedicated to Delius because of his admiration for Whitman. Haglund, though he never met Delius himself, met Eric Fenby, who was assistant to Delius for many years, and through this relationship came to a deeper understanding of Delius and later, through Fenby’s fiancée, of Swedenborg. That Delius was such an important influence on Haglund is hardly revealed in his music, for where Delius was chromatic and tonal, Haglund creates complex three dimensional structures with parallax views and atonal layers, in some ways similar and in some way quite distinct from other modern and postmodern Scandinavian composers such as Sven-Erik Bäck, and Karl-Birger Blomdahl. All this would be for naught without the flawless rendering of the scores by the orchestra and soloists, perhaps most notably violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn, who in fact commissioned the first movement. Pitcairn’s playing, urged by the intensity of Haglund’s composition, continues to tighten formally and fluidify emotionally as her repertoire diversifies. In Hymnen an die Nacht, Haglund’s finest moment to date, the triadic conception of history is released from the fishbowl of Teutonic political literalism, into the interior badlands of moral aesthetics elucidated by Schiller and others, where it dares to be grand in cynical times—dares to open a vista into another world that makes ours look very gossamer indeed.

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