Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three suns?
—Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 3, Act 2, Scene 1
I’m not terribly versed in choral music, to say the least, but little by little I’ve been adding pieces to my personal “canon.” Until David Nice noted that James “MacMillan took a leaf out of [Benjamin Britten’s] ‘The Driving Boy’ with the wonderful whistling tune in a choral masterpiece, Sun-Dogs,” I’d not been aware of the piece or the poem MacMillan set. I’ve since listened to Sun-Dogs again and again.
Setting a pre-existing poem to music is a tricky business. I’ve been disappointed enough in musical settings of poems by John Ashbery and Wallace Stevens to wonder whether keeping it simple might not be the best predictor of success—and surely the peril can only increase when the poet is around to hear the result. Composer Ned Rorem, for example, said about his setting of an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “she pretended to be happy with what I’d done . . . but in her heart I know that she hated it.”[Academy of American Poets Discussion with John Ashbery, Ned Rorem and June LeBell at 8:30]
Despite the odds, I remain eager to discover settings that “have it all.” The poems I most enjoy are those that don’t yield up their secrets at first glance—poems with a seemingly limitless capacity to unfurl meanings and associations. When I listen to music, I hope for much the same experience, and I find it most readily in that much-bothered-about term, “classical music.”
The experience I seek puts to mind one of my favorite passages in Thomas Mann’s The Stories of Jacob, about Jacob in the act of pondering.
It was a mighty and eloquent pondering, the essence of pondering, its very definition so to speak, an emotional self-absorption of the highest degree—he never did less than that. When Jacob pondered, then it had to be a pondering visible at a good hundred paces, a pondering so grand and strong that not only was it obvious to anyone that Jacob was lost in thought, but also people realized for the first time in their lives what it truly means to ponder and were left awestruck by such a state and sight . . . [Joseph and His Brothers 69]
The one word I’d change is “lost.” While others may see Jacob as “lost in thought,” I see him, in the act of pondering, as found. There are few things more absorbing than to find oneself in “the essence of pondering” a work of art.
Michael Symmons Roberts’s poem Sun-Dogs operates in several spheres at once, subverting ordinary boundaries between the real and imagined, confounding the notions of what is metaphor and what just is. The “sun-dogs” of the poem may be naturally occurring phenomena, seen “at the end of an equatorial summer,” but they might also be ordinary dogs racing “at full terrifying tilt across open fields.” The atmospheric and the animal are conflated: a chase results in a kill that ends a drought.
In the poem’s use of the phrase “Domini canes” (“Domini canes; a pair, one white, one black/guardians of order, watchdogs, custodians of luck), Roberts expands the realm of possible associations yet further. In James MacMillan’s Sun-Dogs: A Conductor’s Analysis, Timothy Shantz summarized the rich fund of resonances the phrase offers to the poem:
The Dominicans are a religious order of Roman Catholics founded by Dominic of Guzman in the early part of the thirteenth century. He became known for abandoning his books and all other possessions to help those trying to survive in a period of famine in Spain. . . . His followers became known as “dogs of the Lord,” after a dream Dominic’s mother had before his birth where she saw a dog carrying a lighted torch and setting the world on fire. Since their founding, the Dominican Order has been connected with the Latin words Domini canes. The emblem of the order is a black and/or white dog carrying a burning torch in its mouth. The torch is a symbol of preaching. [Shantz 47]
In a further spiraling of references and connections, as Shantz also noted, St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order, is the patron saint of astronomers.
James MacMillan wrote of the poem,
The text is richly allegorical, iconographic with a deep well of symbolism. The metaphors are complex, evoking a range of emotions and images, dark and terrifying one minute, radiant and ecstatic the next. [Shantz 43]
Setting such a poem isn’t a task for the timid, but MacMillan has a long and successful collaborative relationship with Roberts based on a substantial synergy of perspectives in their lives and creative work. MacMillan said of Roberts’s work:
As soon as I began to read his poetry I recognised a compatibility between us. His work is very complex – it doesn’t immediately communicate its sense to you, but lingers and resonates. It’s not what you would call “pop” poetry. It’s a search for the sacred that needs to ruminate in your mind, which is something I think music can enable and enhance. [Shantz 28, quoting The Independent]
Roberts has said of their collaborations:
We take a yearly break together to work on shared projects. We seem to have settled on Skye, although wherever we go, the main proviso is that there is a TV to watch the football. I’m a Manchester United fan and he supports Celtic, which is fine until we meet in the Champions League – they’ve embarrassed us a few times! [The Independent]
The signs augured well, then, but of course the proof is in the listening. For me, each listen places Sun-Dogs higher and higher in my pantheon of personal favorites. Everything about it works—even, and perhaps especially, things that had no “right” to work.
While the poem consists of seventeen couplets, MacMillan’s setting for a cappella choir is in five movements. Though each movement concludes with a completed poetic “thought” (as designated by a period), the movements vary in the number of couplets set, and the fourth movement starts with one couplet’s second line. Shantz noted that, while MacMillan worked collaboratively with Roberts, “it was MacMillan’s own sense of the overarching musical structure that influenced the overall musical design.” [Shantz 62]
Setting the words of deceased authors provides composers with a great amount of artistic freedom, but when it comes to living authors it can be difficult to find a creative ally who allows a composer to manipulate, rework, or even add to the original structure of the poetry. Fortunately for MacMillan, his established relationship and collaborative work with poet Michael Symmons Roberts has allowed him a certain amount of freedom to play with the poetic meter and line speed of Roberts’s pre-existing poems.
From the first movement of Sun-Dogs, MacMillan engages with the meaning and expectation of the poem by emphasizing specific words, phrases and ideas through musical means such as the length of notes, dynamic shaping and repetition or elongation of words and phrases. He adheres closely to the syntax of the poetry in his phrase structure but also influences the listener’s perception of the poem through his free musical setting. [Shantz 65]
Though I don’t have technical background that would allow me to understand Shantz’s meticulous musical analysis in full detail, his clarity of expression aided me in making many discoveries about what I’m listening to and what to listen for. Here is a small set of examples (Shantz, Chapter 4, 61+):
In the first movement, listen for the repetitions of “and then rain” at ~2:50 (Spotify) and “its throat torn apart” at ~4:07 (Spotify). Shantz noted:
“its throat torn apart” . . . are words seldom sung by a choir, let alone voices singing in high tessitura. Such words occasionally appear in solo work or a dramatic opera but are highly uncommon in choral music. MacMillan’s recollection of the rain in this passage and the full harmonic texture produces an almost incongruent contrast between the words and music . . . [Shantz 72]
In the second movement, which sets one couplet, beginning with “Domini canes,” listen for the use of repetition throughout.
In the third movement, listen for the whispered and sung interpolations from a 13th century nursery rhyme, “Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark.”
In the fourth movement, listen for the whistled tune, as well as the “glossolalia effect” of the interpolated Latin Eucharist prayer (Accipite et manducate ex hoc omnes . . . . Hoc facite in meam commemorationem”). Shantz wrote of the whistled tune that it was “an obvious example of Scottish folk music influence.” [Shantz 96]
The features of grace notes or snap rhythms (more commonly referred to as the Scotchsnap) and the prominence of thirds are familiar to the genre of Scottish folk and Classical music. The rhythms, in particular, relate closely to the technique of ‘gracing’ in Highland bagpipe music. [Shantz 96-97]
In the fifth movement, listen for singing that uses a “leader and drag” effect. I believe I first hear it at ~1:46 (Spotify), but others should feel free to point out any error. As described by Shantz:
MacMillan calls upon four to six soprano and tenor soloists (total of 8-12) to sing a florid melody . . . . according to the score it is, “To be sung by a handful of soloists, each staggering their entry canonically so that there is a continual flow of overlapping threads.” [Shantz 109-110]
The whistling tune returns at the close of Sun-Dogs, so it seems only fitting to close with Shantz’s delightful exchange about the tune with MacMillan:
TS – In this melody, did the inspiration come from thinking of the Saints, like Vitus?
JM – Um, partly. It was more to do with ah… it’s funny to say here, but ah… one way in which you communicate with dogs is by whistling at them… (he whistles as an example).
TS – Aha! Right.
JM – And I didn’t want that simple whistle, I wanted it to be more musical. Dogs respond to human whistles all the time. I’ve got a little dog, a West Highland Terrier and I whistle to it. [Shantz 115]
James MacMillan’s Sun-Dogs (2006; for SATB chorus a cappella (with multiple divisi))
MacMillan’s program note and other information about Sun-Dogs may be found here.
Celso Antunes in rehearsal, with commentary in Dutch and English (From about 6:50-7:30, Antunes talks about the importance of having the chance, with an a cappella work, “to do what orchestras do all the time.”)
Gramophone discussion of the Antunes/Netherlands recording of Sun-Dogs
Boosey & Hawkes rates the “choral level of difficulty: Level 5 (5 greatest).”
Sun-Dogs is a major concert work in five movements lasting some 18 minutes. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted and needs not only a choir of extensive resources but a conductor with confidence and ability. . . . This is an inspired work well worth the effort of surmounting its challenges by a skilful and ambitious choir.
Credits: The sources for the images in the post may be found here and here. The quotations are at the sources linked in the text, with the lion’s share from Timothy Shantz’s dissertation, James MacMillan’s Sun-Dogs: A Conductor’s Analysis, with grateful thanks for his kind permission to quote from that text. Timothy Shantz is Artistic Director, Spiritus Chamber Choir; Founder & Artistic Director, Luminous Voices Music Society; and Chorusmaster, Calgary Philharmonic Chorus. He generously responded to this total stranger’s request to obtain a copy of his invaluable dissertation, which, among other things, draws upon his conversations with MacMillan and participation in the world premiere performance of Sun-Dogs:
As scholar, conductor and soloist I had the unique opportunity to participate in the world premiere of Sun-Dogs, at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in August 2006, directed by one of the co-commissioners, Carmen Helena Téllez. During the days leading up to the premiere, I took copious notes during James MacMillan’s interventions at the colloquia and classroom lectures organized around the event, and I held several one-on-one interviews with him. [Shantz 2]
Reading Shantz’s analysis enhanced significantly the already considerable pleasure of listening to Sun-Dogs and reading the poem on which it is based.