Stars – Erik Esenvalds (b. 1977)

This article for Epiphany was first published in the January 2018 issue of our parish magazine.

Since joining the Manchester Chorale in April 2016 I have been introduced to a wealth of new choral music, some sacred, some secular, and some – like “Stars” – that seems to build a bridge between the two. Esenvalds is a young Latvian composer who writes in a broad range of styles, for a broad range of ensembles. In Stars, he has set the text of Sara Teasdale’s 1920 poem to music:

  • Alone in the night
  • On a dark hill
  • With pines around me
  • Spicy and still,
  • And a heaven full of stars
  • Over my head,
  • White and topaz
  • And misty red;
  • Myriads with beating
  • Hearts of fire
  • That aeons
  • Cannot vex or tire;
  • Up the dome of heaven
  • Like a great hill,
  • I watch them marching
  • Stately and still,
  • And I know that I
  • Am honoured to be
  • Witness
  • Of such majesty.

At first sight this looks like a fairly straightforward description of a starry night. Look again. The sky is never referred to in such simple terms. It is Heaven, a great majestic dome as timeless as our Creator. There are even “Creation” links to the first verse of “Lord of the Dance”:

  • I danced in the morning
  • When the world was begun,
  • And I danced in the moon
  • And the stars and the sun,
  • And I came down from heaven
  • And I danced on the earth,
  • At Bethlehem
  • I had my birth.

Now pause and listen to the music here The four voice parts intertwine, rising and falling like the stars making their way across the skies. But that’s not it. Listen again to the eerie accompaniment. What is that? The ‘head’ answer is tuned wine glasses (!), but the ‘heart’ answer is the breath of Angels.

You may well have made such music yourself. Partially fill a stemmed wine glass with a liquid of your choice, dampen a finger, and then use that finger to run around the rim of the glass. With practice, you will produce a pure note. Change the volume of liquid, and the pitch of the note will also change. The music director of the Manchester Chorale considered giving alternate choristers a tuned wine glass to hold, with the other alternate singers holding a folder of music. It was far too cumbersome, and she said that not all Chorale members could be trusted with glasses of wine! I’m fairly sure she was joking. Instead, iPads were used. A single wine glass was tuned to a known pitch and recorded. Technology was then used to transpose the recording to all the required pitches, and two people played them at our rehearsals and performances.

There is deep humility in the final verse. Creation is not limited to our own little planet, glorious though it is, but extends beyond distant galaxies too numerous for our comprehension. Majestic indeed, and it is truly an honour to be witness to it.

Carol P

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