Forms of Resurrection: Wendell Berry’s Poems and the Music of Shawn Jaeger

1 IMG_6140_edited-1Again we come
to the resurrection
of bloodroot from the dark

—Wendell Berry

Sometimes a particular piece of music takes hold and thoroughly captures my imagination. Shawn Jaeger’s The Cold Pane is one such piece. While out walking in search of the first signs of spring, Again, the final song in his lovely setting of five poems by Wendell Berry, accompanies me on my route.

March 31, 2015, I was lucky enough to attend the premiere of another piece by Shawn Jaeger, Thousands of Years to Make It What It Was, for violin and piano, in Carnegie Hall’s elegant Weill Recital Hall. Here, too, a Berry poem served as Jaeger’s inspiration. The title is drawn from a line in one of Berry’s Sabbath poems, a meditation on a field where “the earth fled with the rain/The growth of fifty thousand years undone/In a few careless seasons . . . ”. Jaeger wrote of the piece, “there is no overt repetition in this music—that would be too easy—just constant change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. We try, we err, we hope.” Jaeger eloquently limns in music the slow accretion of soil, its violent erosion, and the possibility, however remote, of a new beginning. Not a note is wasted: every note means. (The complete program note may be found in “Music,” under the work’s title, here.)

Postscript: Jaeger’s piece, a co-commission by the Concert Artists Guild and The BMI Foundation, received a brilliant performance as part of a recital featuring violinist Alexi Kenney and pianist Renana Gutman. The richly varied program vividly displayed the range of Kenney’s and Gutman’s tremendous talents. The other works on the program were Johann Paul von Westhoff’s Suite No. 2 in A Major, Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, and George Enescu’s Sonata No. 3 in A Minor. Kenney performed two encores, Piazzolla’s Tango-Etude No. 3, and, with Gutman, the first movement of Dvorak’s Romantic Pieces for Violin. You may see him perform Bach and hear him perform the Westhoff, Enescu, and Piazzolla pieces he performed at the recital here. The New York Times review of the recital and Jaeger’s piece may be found here.

1 IMG_6120Listening List

In a bit of serendipity, a few days before the March 31 premiere, composer Lembit Beecher had written: “I spent a lot of time yesterday listening to the vocal chamber music of Shawn Jaeger. What imaginative, unexpected and heartfelt music! Go listen to it!” If you haven’t had occasion to follow his fine advice as yet, I hope you will now.

Listen to Dawn Upshaw and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra perform Jaeger’s The Cold Pane here.

When I first heard this piece, performed by Lucy Dhegrae and other members of Contemporaneous, I was particularly curious to find out how Jaeger would handle the “resurrection” in Berry’s Again. (All I knew for sure was that it would be nothing like Mahler’s Second Symphony!) The beautiful sounds floating up in Again were, I later learned, created by “the harmonic series and the acoustic principle of sum tones as a sonic metaphor for the rebirth and return to light evoked in the song’s text.” [quoted from Jaeger’s program notes] At the very end of the song, you’ll hear the sound of a cardinal call on violin, a call that initially appeared at the close of the first setting, It Is Almost Spring Again.

Jaeger’s program notes and an online score including the Wendell Berry texts may be found here. (Click on “Music,” where you’ll find The Cold Pane, as well as many others of Jaeger’s works to explore.) A free digital download of recent works by Jaeger may be found here. (The first three tracks, Letters Made with Gold, feature Dhegrae with Contemporaneous, conducted by David Bloom.)

In addition to The Cold Pane and Thousands of Years to Make It What It Was, Jaeger based his elegant chamber opera, Payne Hollow, on Berry’s verse play, Sonata at Payne Hollow. You may find more information about the opera here and here.

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Credits: The quotations may be found at the source linked in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.




4 thoughts on “Forms of Resurrection: Wendell Berry’s Poems and the Music of Shawn Jaeger

  1. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue, lovely! You found so many signs of spring, the photos are great! And I found by your post that poem which was unbeknownst to me.
    You might have seen that I took one of my posts down – someone got it all wrong and I was in no mood for discussions. Thank you for your comment: I’m looking forward to Crete with utterly anticipation – could also write: with all my heart.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: The Central Park Conservatory was the place to look–though none there are bloodroot or indeed any type of wildflower. I’m happy, though to have any signs of spring and am so glad you enjoyed them, too. I also didn’t know of Wendell Berry’s poems until introduced to them through Shawn Jaeger’s wonderful settings. I suspect you’d enjoy many of the poems. And say, thinking of Crete: when we were there, wildflowers were out in abundance. I hope that will be true for you as well, but no matter what, you’ll have a glorious time. Enjoy!

  2. shoreacres

    I’ve finally gotten a hint at the difference between your spring and ours. It’s the rising of your wildflowers from under leaves and out of frank dirt. By the time our wildflowers begin to appear, the greening already has started, and of course there’s no remnant snow. It makes a difference. Context is everything, as they say!

    I’m such a fan of Berry’s work, and now you’ve intrigued me enough to start with “Again,” just for the cardinal call at the end. What other treats are there, I’ll find out in the process of listening, but the cardinal is a favorite bird, and a perfect key to unlock another piece of music.

    You’ve just sent me over to the bookshelf to pull down Berry’s “The Art of the Commonplace.” I’d forgotten how much of an opinionated old cuss he can be, and how utterly disdainful of what you, or I, or anyone else thinks of his opinions. I believe I might find some time to read a few more of his essays. I have a bit of an idea already what he would think of the Apple watch. :)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: I loved learning about that cardinal call in Again (it’s also in the first piece in the cycle), and it added to my enjoyment to have it demonstrated by voice and on violin just before hearing the song live. I also loved, as seems to have happened several times in my own listening recently, that music I enjoyed led me to new poets and poems. I am now a proud owner of a book of Berry’s poems, e.g. I can well imagine he might be “an opinionated old cuss” (of the best sort)!

      Indeed, yes, the flowers I show rise “from under leaves and out of frank dirt.” Is it possible the difference has to do, in part, with the type of flowers, as these are all early bulbs? We had a friend just visiting from Louisiana, and she noted that crocuses don’t grow down there. I suppose the other thing to figure out is whether any of them were indeed wildflowers. I’m suspecting not, as they were all to be found in the Central Park Conservatory Garden. You have me very curious about what DOES grow wild here “out of frank dirt.” Must keep an eye out for that.

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