The Song Gatherer: Cello Concerto no. 2
Composition Date: 2009
Orchestration: solo vc.2+pic.2+ca.2+bc.2/184.108.40.206/timp.2perc/hp/str
Commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, Music Director, and the Halle Orchestra, Mark Elder, Music Director.
First performed on 12 November 2009 by Robert Cohen (vc) with the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä, at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis.
CELLO CONCERTO NO. 2
for Robert Cohen
THE SONG GATHERER
‘I somehow feel there has to be a journey through areas of purity, complication, turmoil, discovery/enlightenment and ultimate soaring freedom and strength. There's something I have discovered in me that when I am centred, flies half way between the ground and the sky. It's like the mid-way point, balancing the close with the far. It's the soaring pure energy.’
When Robert asked me to write this work, he told me about his roots in Eastern Europe. His maternal grandfather was brought from Poland to South Africa as a small child, because of a mistake – the family got on the wrong boat, having intended to travel to Britain. He became a diamond miner, and a diamond he found is now worn by Robert’s mother in a ring.
The piece uses ideas of travelling, following and gathering – the movement of peoples, the itinerant nature of Robert’s life as a musician. I have used musical forms and devices that echo these ideas: the scale, the fugue and the canon.
I asked Robert if there were any folk tunes that had been passed down to him, but he only remembered flavours; the ‘pain and passion’ of the harmonic minor scale so much heard in Yiddish music – and snatches of a South African song sung to him by his mother.
I found several songs and took phrases and characteristic intervals from them, constructing most of the material of the concerto from these ‘half-remembered’ fragments.
The cello takes on the role of traveller. The music is often restless, always moving on, but settling also on extended lament, meditation, and joyful reflection. Dark and light – grief and humour.
Poland is one of the main "junctions" where a number of bird migration routes meet, travelling from Europe to Siberia, Africa and Asia. I have used their songs to embellish the music. A Polish folksong about the white stork, a symbol of good fortune, begs the bird to stay rather than setting off for Africa. This is the only tune I have used in its entirety, at the end of the second movement.
The first movement takes as its starting point a Yiddish lullaby, Raisins and Almonds, by Goldfaden. The melody is hardly heard, but a flavour of it, and the haunting refrain, are just discernible. The concerto opens with an extended fugal introduction which builds through the strings, adding woodwind and brass, until the cello enters in clear space with an extended recitative, before the music launches into a restless toccata. Voice follows voice, building layers of canon. A more gentle central section surrounds the cello with harp and cascading flutes and clarinets, and the high-pitched Eb clarinet utters the haunting refrain of the lullaby, before the toccata returns.
The second movement weaves together tiny fragments of three folk songs: a Chassidic tune from Poland, a South African melody, Sarie Marais, which itself has its origins in Europe and has become a national song, and the Polish ‘white stork’ folk song. The cello mirrors the stuttering vocal articulations from Chassidic singing, and the sounds of migrating birds are heard – black kites, warblers, corncrakes and swallows, and the rattles and whispers of the white stork.
I remember playing quartets with Robert and his sister when he was a small boy, Robert stamping his feet, laughing and almost dancing as he played. This memory was the inspiration of the last movement, which begins with a raucous dance accompanied by drum. The dance draws the orchestra in, leading to a wild climax, out of which emerges the opening fugue from the first movement, this time leading to a high, tranquil plane, and a final burst of energy.
THE SONG GATHERER was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, Music Director, and the Halle Orchestra, Mark Elder, Music Director.
It was first performed on 12th November 2009 by Robert Cohen with the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä, at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis. The UK premiere was given by Robert Cohen with the Halle Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder, at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, on 2nd December 2010.
The composer wishes to acknowledge with thanks the assistance of several friends in sourcing the folk songs used in the concerto:
Sally Beamish 2009