Heart Songs of the White Wampum

Conductor Notes:

Commissioned by Elektra Women’s Choir, Morna Edmundson, Artistic Director, Bella Voce Women’s Chorus of Vermont, Dr. Dawn Willis, Artistic Director, and the University of Toronto Women’s Chamber Choir, Dr. Hilary Apfelstadt, Conductor. Commissioned with the generous financial assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Diane Loomer Commissioning Fund for Elektra Women’s Choir.

This is a four-movement suite for treble choir and marimba, written for Canadian marimbist Beverley Johnston who traveled to Vancouver for the Western Canadian premiere. It is simpler for the choir than for the marimbist, which opens up possibilities for children’s and youth choirs as well. Each movement sets a completely different mood and uses the marimba in a unique way and may be performed separately.

Characters of the four movements are:

I. Rainfall – energetic unison over a challenging, florid marimba accompaniment. Just a few harmony notes toward the end of the movement. Diction was our challenge at the tempo called for in the score.

II. The Lifting of the Mist – We rehearsed this as though it were an a cappella piece to secure notes, rhythms and phrasing before putting the marimba part in, which simply provides a rolling “misty” bank of sound around the choral texture. Four-part with some divisi, this movement is much more challenging for the choir than Rainfall.

III. Fire Flowers – a highly evocative and still movement – the marimba part is a stark, dry and relentless, over which the choir’s melody unfolds with lots of room for expressive singing. As the movement develops, pedal notes and counter melodies begin to be left behind as the melody continues on. I think this is my favourite movement. Surprising and very moving.

IV. The Birds’ Lullaby – Okay, maybe this is my favourite movement! “Dolce” describes this tender 6/8 call to the trees to sway the little birds to sleep. The tempo picks up subtly as more and more harmony parts are added in parallel thirds and sixths. All but the alto 2 line eventually split.

Audio/Video: Elektra has posted our premiere performance in March 2014 on YouTube. We will shortly be releasing studio recordings.

Sheet music: I believe Tim is going to release these on his own company, called Silent Dawn Publishing, but I don’t see them there yet. Please write to me (Morna) via the Elektra website and I’ll try to find out what’s happening there.

Composer / Arranger Notes:

Composer Timothy Corlis writes: “Heart Songs of the White Wampum is a setting of four poems by the Canadian poet E. Pauline Johnson (1861 – 1913). She was raised in Southern Ontario, the daughter of an English immigrant and a Mohawk Chief. Two of the poems are taken from a collection called The White Wampum. The title refers to carved white shells used in ancient North America as a symbol of prestige and respect. The shells were carefully carved and polished from conches and then assembled into strings or belts. The intricate weaving of the shells into belts was also a way of preserving important stories within a culture. Talking about her collection of poems, Pauline Johnson explains her comparison of poetry to wampum – “chiselled alike from that which is the purest of possessions, woven alike with meaning into belt and book, fraught alike with the corresponding message of peace…” In setting the poetry to music, I’ve tried to preserve the poet’s intent, music that has a valuable connection to the past and a story to tell today. Pauline Johnson is buried and memorialized in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.”


This lists any discs, concerts or collections where this piece is included.




I. Rainfall

FROM out of the west, where darkling storm-clouds float,
The ’waking of the wind pipes soft its rising note.

From out the west, o’er hung with fringes grey,
The wind preludes with a sigh, sighs its roundelay.

Blowing, singing, piping, laughing loud,
It scurries on before the grey storm-cloud;

Across the hollow and along the hill
It whips and whirls among the maples, till

With boughs upbent, and green of leaves blown wide,
The silver shines upon their underside.

A gusty freshening of humid air,
With showers laden, and with fragrance rare;

And now a little sprinkle, with a dash
Cool drops fall with sudden splash;

Then over field and hollow, grass and grain,
The loud, crisp whiteness of the nearing rain.

II. The Lifting of the Mist

All the long day the vapours played
At blindfold in the city streets,
Their elfin fingers caught and stayed
The sunbeams, as they wound their sheets
Into a filmy barricade
Twixt earth and where the sunlight beats.

A vagrant band of mischiefs these,
With wings of grey and cobweb gown;
They live along the edge of seas,
And creeping out on foot of down
They chase and frolic, frisk and tease
At blind-man’s buff with all the town.

And when at eventide the sun
Breaks with a glory through their grey,
The vapour-fairies, one by one,
Outspread their wings and float away.

III. Fire Flowers

And only where the forest fires have sped,
Scorching relentlessly the cool north lands,
A sweet wild flower lifts its purple head,
And, like some gentle spirit sorrow-fed,
It hides the scars with almost human hands.

And only to the heart that knows of grief,
Of desolating fire, of human pain,
There comes some purifying sweet belief,
Some fellow-feeling beautiful, if brief.
And life revives, and blossoms once again.

IV. The Birds’ Lullaby

SING to us, cedars; the twilight is creeping
With shadowy garments, the wilderness through;
All day we have carolled, and now would be sleeping,
So echo the anthems we warbled to you;
Swing, swing,
And your branches sing,
And we drowse to your dreamy whispering.

Sing to us, cedars; the night-wind is sighing,
Is wooing, is pleading, to hear you reply;
And here in your arms we are restfully lying,
And longing to dream to your soft lullaby;
Swing, swing…

Sing to us, cedars; your voice is so lowly,
Your breathing so fragrant, your branches so strong;
Our little nest-cradles are swaying so slowly,
While zephyrs are breathing their slumberous song.
Swing, swing…