If there's anything that I feel strongly about (next to music education in schools, the dwindling appreciation of classical culture, loss of biodiversity and natural places), it's climate change. To be more specific, our ineptness in facing the huge challenges hanging over humanity that are so out of proportion to anything that we have collectively battled and found solutions for in the past. As a conductor of choral (and orchestral) music, it's quite hard to find a way to make an impact to be part of the solution, not the problem. The first thing that comes to mind is obviously to program music that at least addresses this issue. This, preferably, with the intention of abstaining from flying in "necessary" talent from all parts of the world and/or touring internationally by air. Programming music that addresses these very new issues and is appropriate for the ensemble is like searching for a few needles in a haystack. I have come across one exceptionally relevant and also well-composed piece for 40 voices called Earthrise (inspired by Spem in allium) by Alec Roth, which can be accompanied by organ and cello. One work that goes well with this approximately 30 min piece is a stunning work by Sven-David Sandström called To See a World. The first time I conducted this piece, the text just gripped me. Written in 1803 bij William Blake, it juxtaposes innocence and corruption. Although Sandström only uses the first verse of this work of 132 lines, they are the most poignant. They can mean so much on different levels, but for me it is a plea for finding meaning in less (of everything). Less is more.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
I have been dabbling in composition since the beginning of the corona crisis, and decided to put up my sleeves and take a jab at composing a piece myself for the three choirs, cello, and organ, using William Blake’s text as well. The reason being that one of my choirs is organising a three-choir collaboration for their Jubilee project in June/July 2023, and the thematic thread is sustainability. I decided to include the following verses from the Auguries:
Man was made for Joy and Woe
And when this we rightly know
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine
Composing my To See a World was in a non-lockdown situation was tougher than I had first imagined it would be. Months of brooding over possible themes and how to link them with intervals, which texts to use, how to incorporate contemporary texts that are directly relevant to climate change yet making it not an affront to the listener, pondering over the possibilities of the large church balconies, considering the different levels of the choirs involved. All of this while speeding through “normal” life again of daily evening rehearsals in different cities, preparing scores and practicing voice in the daytime, managing my household, and finding time to take care of my health.
The day before yesterday I put the finishing touches on the first draft during a nine hour long train ride to Berlin.
Relief! I will be recording small bits myself during the next few months, but the première will take place in the Hartebrugkerk in Leiden on June 10th 2023. I’ll be posting more about this at a later time.
My question for my fellow choir conductors out there: what is the future looking like for you in terms of repertoire? A very insistent theme that comes up repeatedly is that my choir members don’t want to sing religious music anymore. I am ready to agree with them. “Mooi muziek, jammer dat het altijd over God gaat.” When 90% of your repertoire is about a subject that doesn’t have nearly the same relevance as when it was written, you have to start reevaluating your intentions as an ensemble.
What is the role of an artist in confronting the public with your own concerns about the world? Are we only there to provide beauty and comfort, or are we also there to expose and disturb?
Hebe de Champeaux
conductor, mezzo-soprano, violinist, composer