A little Snow was here and there
For four-part women’s choir
by Matthew Lane on a poem by Emily Dickinson
When Jennifer Berntson asked me to write this piece in the summer of 2016, I was overjoyed. I had heard Aella’s inaugural concert, and have rarely heard a women’s chamber choir with such a lovely blend alongside such a capacity for musical complexity. It was one of the few concerts where I truly stopped analysing the music, and just entered into it. She asked if I could write something snow-related.
While planning the piece in the fall of 2016, the overt sexism of the US election campaign was on display, so I looked for poetry by women, specifically those from North America. It felt necessary, perhaps only as a consolation to myself with a young daughter, to use poetry showing women had persevered and created in more difficult times than these. Knowing Jennifer for many years, I presumed she would approve of this sentiment. This meant passing over beautiful poems by Robert Burns, Robert Frost, and Christina Rossetti. Lucy Maude Montgomery was a close second choice, but I eventually settled on Emily Dickinson.
A little Snow was here and there
Disseminated in her Hair -
Since she and I had met and played
Decade had gathered to Decade -
But Time had added not obtained
Impregnable the Rose
For summer too indelible
Too obdurate for Snows -
I love the poem for its simplicity, and for its juxtaposition of a sort of cause and effect: time, and who we become. On the surface, it’s about snow, but underneath, I understand it as a reflection on the passing of time between two people. How can we age gracefully, and allow ourselves to be moulded by the beauty and the joyful connections in our lives, and yet not allow ourselves to be deformed by the dark, cold “winters” we all pass through? It testifies to a special kind of endurance that only allows the “summers” of life to change us. This is a quality I always search for in life, a quality I want to be able to pass onto my children, and one I deeply admire in both Jennifer Berntson and Shawn Potter.
On a musical level, I wanted to contrast the simplicity of the initial image (“A little Snow was here and there”) with the kind of stubbornness and persistence I read into the fourth line of each verse. For me, stubbornness and persistence begets complexity. I chose to endow those fourth lines with a chance to proliferate, to grow, with obstinate repetitions of short passages, building to the “mystic” chord of Scriabin in the whole choir.
A cascading density is created by layering the voices, one singer at a time, giving each one the freedom to begin their passage when they wish. This is what’s called “controlled aleatory” writing: it’s been a hallmark of contemporary composition, strongly associated with the Polish composer Lutoslawski. Much of the inspiration for this particular passage, however, came from a piece I sang in the fall: Jerome Blais’s Conductus 2. This work contrasts simple chant melodies in the choir, with spaces where each singer takes a portion of the melody and the choir collectively builds towards a dense effusion of sound.
The overarching structure of the piece was a build from the simplicity of youth towards the complexity of a mature individual, with all the turpitudes and contradictions therein. The different lines echo the multiple factions of a personality we develop over time; I sought to encapsulate the layers, internal conversations, and changing priorities of the different streams of our life in the four voice counterpoint.
The piece, like many of mine, took time, but not in ways people often presume. It took a month or so to consider what I wanted the piece to be about, which poetry to use, and how I might allow the poetry to guide the music. Writing the actual notes, the actual “composing”, took a little over two days. This was not so much out of a haste to finish the piece, but out of a necessity to express everything I needed to while the emotional impulse from the poem was still fresh. Through time and rereadings, I tend to reinterpret a poem many different ways, and it’s important for the unity of a piece that the understanding of the poetry does not change halfway through the composition. Thus, speed often creates a better-connected piece.
Come hear the premiere of "A Little Snow Was Here and There" on February 11, 7:30 p.m., at First Baptist Church (140 Laurier Ave W, Ottawa).