‘The world is on fire!’
A nighttime photograph of the Northern Lights taken from the International Space Station above central Nebraska, looking to the northeast. [Credit: NASA]
In Paradisum (2012)
Northern Lights (2013)
“I like to work with choirs and directors on my music because I want to share the exact feelings I had when composing certain pieces. I feel it is not possible to put all that information on music paper.”
— Ēriks Ešenvalds
Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds has rapidly gained an international following, with new works premiered by ensembles throughout Europe, the United States (including the Boston Symphony Orchestra), and Australia. His multimedia symphony Nordic Light received its German premiere with Rundfunkchor Berlin last year, and a second multimedia symphony, focusing on the natural phenomenon of volcanoes, will premiere in 2018. He has commissions underway for the Yale Glee Club, Harvard University, Interkultur, the International Federation of Choral Music, and China’s Shenzhen Lily Choir.
Born in Priekule, Latvia, in 1977, Ešenvalds was educated in Latvian schools, including studies at the Latvian Baptist Theological Seminary (1995-97) and a masters degree in composition (2004) from the Latvian Academy of Music. In 2011 he was awarded a two-year Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. He is a prominent workshop clinician and speaker, and his work is included in a number of recordings, with five albums devoted entirely to his compositions.
The text for In Paradisum is an antiphon associated with the traditional Requiem Mass, sung on solemn occasions as the casket leaves the sanctuary for committal. It is a calm benediction, a peaceful farewell that offers closure and anticipates a resolution of grief for survivors. Composers have prepared settings of the text for more than five centuries, from Tomas Luis de Victoria and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina to the peaceful modern requiems of Maurice Duruflé and Gabriel Fauré. Ešenvalds wrote this setting in memory of his grandmother Irma Ešenvalde.
The text offers a vision of afterlife with a universal appeal, from the rich splendors of the holy city Jerusalem to the welcoming presence of Lazarus, who was once a beggar. The angelic escorts are reminiscent of John Tavener’s Song for Athene, which quotes Hamlet: “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Aurora Borealis — the Northern Lights — are the largest optical phenomenon the Earth has to offer, dwarfing rainbows, comets, eclipses, meteor showers. They exert a magical wonder that almost defies description, whether by cosmologists equipped with 21st-century technology, by 19th-century explorers when photography was in its infancy, or by primitive observers from a world lit only by fire, whose expressions of astonishment and wonder became part of Scandinavian and Baltic folklore.
Ešenvalds got a fleeting first glimpse of the aurora in Latvia. It only lasted a few minutes, but the experience propelled him to a pursuit that led to Norway. There, lying in a field of snow and equipped with borrowed photographic equipment, Ešenvalds spent an entire night with the Northern Lights. He made other efforts, recording the aurora-evening sounds of whales, birds, even the frost breaking on trees. He consulted planetary scientists and explored folkloric accounts. And he composed.
His Northern Lights uses tuned water glasses to conjure the ethereal music of the crystal spheres. The work begins with a soft choral hum beneath a solo voice singing in Latvian about the souls of dead warriors bashing away at each other across the sky. That folkloric description reflects the immensity of the aurora experience and the primitive fear of what might happen should those atmospheric warriors bring their battles to the Earth’s surface.
The chorus moves from folklore to more modern descriptions. The American explorer Charles Francis Hall (1821-71) wrote extensively about his voyages and explorations above the Arctic Circle, including his observation of the whole sky as “one glowing mass of colored flames.” The words “Come above, Hall, at once! THE WORLD IS ON FIRE!” come from Arctic Researches and Life Among the Esquimaux (1865), one of his many books.
Chimes join the tuned water glasses as the text moves from Hall to the Norwegian explorer and Nobel laureate Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930). Nansen uses musical terms to describe his experience of the aurora (“harp music, wild storming in the darkness”). The strings “trembled and sparkled in the glow of the flames” and then played in “gently rocking, silvery waves on which dreams travel into unknown worlds.” The solo voice returns to complete the piece with a reprise of the Latvian folk song.