So Hallowed is That Time
The opening scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the backdrop for this original work by Canadian composer Stephen Smith. The melodies of seven birdsongs, from meadowlark to white-throated sparrow, can be heard throughout, building a musical texture under Marcellus’ telling that “the bird of dawning singeth all night long” on the hallowed night in which we celebrate Christ’s birth.
Stephen, an avid bird-watcher, used the melodic fragments of bird songs in the instruments to set the scene for this sombre and atmospheric piece for SSSAAA choir, violin, cello, and piano. There is a 3-part semi-chorus in the second half of the piece. The aleatoric opening section for strings and piano build up the texture. The choral texture alternates between largely homophonic sections of lush chords and imitative, unison passages. Smith’s writing changes to reflect the ways in which the Christmas night is special, including pointed delivery of the lines “no sprite dare stir abroad” and “then no planets strike” and a flowing, rich “the nights are wholesome”. Because the choral melodic material is derived from the pitches in the actual bird songs, there are some challenging chromatic lines to navigate. The somewhat cloudy, mysterious texture is on the low side, so I would not recommend children’s choirs try this piece. However, for an adult women’s choir of at least 40 voices (to deliver the diction in balance with the trio), this is an effective and unique work that our audiences really responded to. Smith provides excellent notes to navigate the splits.
Composer / Arranger Notes:
The piece begins with the violin, cello, and piano repeating 7 birdsongs* (in a mostly random fashion) over an ostinato pedal. Each birdsong should have its own tempo and character, and the overall effect should be of a gradually intensifying “dawn chorus”, lasting about one minute. … Following the prelude is a setting of the first two lines of the text (the couplet) and a first refrain. Then the next three lines of the text are set (the tercet), followed by a second refrain. The vocal lines of the second refrain are the retrograde of those in the first refrain, while the violin and cello parts are an augmentation of the canonic parts they played during the first refrain. Similar contrapuntal devices are used throughout, and the whole piece is based on the pitches suggested by the birdsongs.
* In order of appearance: meadowlark, American robin, mourning dove, wood thrush, red-winged blackbird, rufous-sided towhee, and white-throated sparrow.
This lists any discs, concerts or collections where this piece is included.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long,
And then they say no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is that time.
Shakespeare: Hamlet, I.i [Marcellus]