Preview: Northern Rites


This programme explores the rich heritage of music from the Scandinavian and Celtic traditions. Interlinked by their shared encounters throughout history - peaceful and otherwise - traces of contact linger in their languages, music, and decorative arts, yet they retain their own spiritual and musical sensibilities, which we present through three core themes: love, hope, and longing.

We will be performing Northern Rites at this year’s Holy Week Festival at St John’s Smith Square on Thursday 18 April. Tickets are available here.

We begin with songs of earthly, familial, and romantic love - Trilo, a traditional Swedish folk song calling distant seafarers home, and MacMillan’s The Gallant Weaver - followed by a Norwegian thanksgiving prayer. Ollén’s arrangement of Trilo encourages use of space to evoke the sense of distance and landscape: the upper voices are centre stage with the lower voices spread around the space, with bare fifths representing the foghorns of fishing boats as they approach land. The free and aleatoric writing for the upper voices captures a sense of authenticity and transposes the single voice to the voices of all those calling out for absent lovers. These voices are distilled down to the three soprano parts that begin MacMillan’s The Gallant Weaver: here, in contrast to Trilo, the parts are direct echoes, creating a shimmering narrative texture which hovers over the steady accompaniment.

The Norwegian prayer Ned i vester soli glader, here arranged by the conductor Grete Pedersen, has a hymn-like melody inflected with ornamentation and rhythmic shapes similar to the searching and soaring lines in MacMillan’s Dominus dabit benignitatem which follows. This setting of Psalm 84 in is texturally reminiscent of The Gallant Weaver with the sopranos unfolding over a looping harmonic pattern in the lower voices. The music of the final phrases is remarkable for its sudden harmonic tension, evoking a sense of epiphany, with the lower voices pivoting between Eb major and A major as the sopranos slide down an octatonic descent (alternating tones and semitones) from their top G, before their closing hummed melody ending on E and D, left unresolved and hanging in space.

In Holy Week we are reminded that hope can be found in the darkest places. Before confronting the crucifixion through Knut Nystedt’s O Crux and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s arrangement of the Icelandic folk song Þann heilaga kross, we turn to a tragedy that remains in living memory. MacMillan’s A Child’s Prayer is dedicated to the victims of the Dunblane massacre of 1996 and is most striking for its climax on the word ‘Joy’ in the face of pure horror. Two treble solos emerge out of the foundation established by the lower voices on the word ‘Welcome’: this word is repeated sixteen times, once for each of the victims, as we are called to remember and embrace each soul into our own hearts forever. The two solo lines conclude by descending together to arrive again on E and D – now an octave lower – before settling on E: the harmonic tension at the end of Dominus dabit has been resolved.

In both Nystedt and Thorvaldsdottir’s reflections of the crucifixion we are invited to congregate through song. O Crux and Þann heilaga kross also both begin with dissonant clusters before blooming into stunning palettes of harmonic colour. After Nystedt’s tense opening, the text ‘O Crux’ is repeated in a texture similar to the ‘Joy’ setting in A Child’s Prayer, full bodied and raw. One of Nystedt’s most famous choral works, O Crux weaves through the text with cinematic breadth, stretching the choir to the edges its upper and lower registers. This harmonic warmth is echoed by Thorvaldsdottir but in her own unique language. Streams of suspensions tie the accompaniment together under the rolling melody interlacing with counter melodies in the alto and tenor parts. These relationships are encapsulated in the long Amen with each part vying for the final notes.

In times of uncertainty and suffering, joy is displaced from the present into the future, where it becomes the object of intense longing. To conclude our programme, this sentiment is presented through four pieces about a life after death, the eternal light where loved ones are reunited in peace and happiness.

Oliver Tarney is one of SANSARA’s Associate Composers whose piece An Irish blessing is dedicated to the memory of his mother. Comforting harmony blooms out of single notes before reaching a climax on the text ‘until we meet again’. In the following passage time stops as the music lingers, flickering in and out of focus with shimmering effects before returning to the homophonic language of the opening for the final cadence. This is followed by Håkon Nystedt’s arrangement of Når mitt øie, trett av møie, a first person reflection on passing into the afterlife. The old Norwegian melody has a similar feel to that of Þann heilaga kross, also in 6/4 although here over a much more sparse accompaniment.

Another one of his Strathclyde motets, MacMillan’s Lux aeterna sets the well-known text from the Requiem Mass. The altos sing an unadorned rendition of the plain-chant as a cantus firmus throughout, with the other three parts weaving around it before coming together for the concluding Amens. This piece is featured on our debut recording, Cloths of Heaven.

Throughout this programme we have revolved between the earthly and the celestial, between the human and the divine. The Norwegian farewell song Herrens venner inverts this union of heaven and earth, promising that finite humans can also be made infinite - that earth can be transposed back onto heaven. Herrens venner declares that no farewell on earth is ever final: ‘In the world beyond, a greeting will resound once again to life and soul’. Our bookending of these themes in the programme forms a musical mediation to and from heaven and earth, and is our own (provisional) farewell.

You can also listen to the majority of this programme by following our playlist on Spotify.

We look forward to seeing you at the concert!