Helen Grime – To see the summer sky

by 5:4

What music “means” – to the composer, and to the listener – is always a fluid, unpredictable thing, and it’s debatable to what extent we have much control over it. For the last few years, as summer has drawn to a close i’ve found myself listening to a short work for violin and viola by Scottish composer Helen Grime, To see the summer sky. From one point of view, the piece has nothing to do with summer; Grime has spoken of how the music was principally inspired by the two instruments themselves, and the title – taken from a short, haiku-esque poem by Emily Dickinson – came after the composition process. Grime felt there was something about the piece that was “trying to fly away”, and the connection to the Dickinson text, and by association to summer, was forged.

Tomorrow evening marks the autumnal equinox, bringing summer to an end, and once again i’ve been listening to To see the summer sky and reflecting on its connection to the season – or, more specifically in this case, to its passing. Just as Grime found notions of the summer sky, and things that are fleeing, impressing itself upon her hitherto abstract music, i find the piece an interesting, multi-faceted comment on, and fitting accompaniment to, the season’s end. As it happens, i love autumn, it’s perhaps my favourite of the seasons, but at the same time there’s something quietly sobering (my Best Beloved would say that that’s putting it far too mildly) about the transition away from light and warmth in the direction of ever-greater coolth and darkness.

So while the piece is not in a highly literal sense “about” summer, i’ve nonetheless come to find the work articulating something meaningful about this specific turning point in the year. Its opening movement starts almost like being plunged into bright flashing gleams of light, out of which slowly emerges a lyrical duet. The violin and viola kind of take turns, demonstrating a sympathy towards each other that characterises the work as a whole. Even when the instruments are far apart – and moments of registral polarisation occur several times in the piece – their connection is never broken. They move in a shared general orbit, articulating either the same or complimentary ideas, at their most intimate gently overlapping each other. It feels delicate and tender. In the second movement Grime injects energy into them, causing the two parts to move quicker, coming together and spinning apart, again taking turns to accompany each other with pizzicati that reinforce individual notes in the other’s phrases.

The third movement is perhaps the most engrossing. Slow, considered, it unfolds into what could perhaps be considered a faintly melancholic meditation. Again the two instruments alternate between intense closeness, based around a rocking motif where they overlap, and being pulled far apart, though something seemingly anti-gravitational propels them both upwards to a coda that offers a more muted impression of the light with which the work began. i said that this could be thought of as melancholic, and the strange halting way that the movement ends is a significant part of this: music that seems as if it must go on, even as it’s practically sputtering out before our ears. Nonetheless, it’s very far from being dour music; even in its most calm, carefully aligned passages, brief flurries of activity shake things up as a sign of ongoing life and vitality. Apropos: as if to emphatically confirm this, the 50-second final movement, filled with rapid oscillations (like two birds in a frenetic mating dance), signs off in the most playfully exuberant way.

There’s something in this mix of stable and fleeting ideas, seriousness and joy, that i find entirely suitable to this seasonal tipping point. As i’m writing these words, i’m looking out over a completely clear, stunningly bright, azure summer sky. i know it’ll be gone soon enough, but it was really good while it lasted – and right now, it’s just beautiful.

This performance of To see the summer sky was given by Joseph Devalle (violin) and Natasha Silver (viola) on 25 August 2012 as part of a portrait concert of Grime’s music at that year’s Proms.

Programme Note

To see the summer sky for Violin and Viola falls into four movements. The first movement opens with the two instruments sounding almost as one playing very high, glassy harmonics. Gradually, an expressive viola solo emerges, with both instruments descending to their lower ranges. A livelier quasi scherzando solo for violin accompanied by viola pedal notes leads to a chorale like passage, the violin at the top of its range, whilst the viola is at its lowest. The movement ends with the two instruments coming together once again on a unison Bb and fades away almost as it has begun, but this time in the husky lower registers.

The second movement is much faster and opens with a downward flurry for both instruments. A continuous pizzicato line for viola is interrupted by more violent passages in the violin. The two instruments come together in a dance-like passage before the roles are reversed. Finally an ecstatic melody surfaces in the viola and is later continued in the violin before the movement closes with the spiky figures of its opening, the two instruments ending in unison.

The third movement encompasses is the most delicate and still music of the piece. After a very tranquil opening, an expressive violin melody is accompanied by a gentle rocking figure in the viola. Tentative at first, intensity and speed gather until the violin reaches stratospheric heights. Both of the instruments play at the extremes of their registers before moving to common ground for a more lively textural passage. This is followed by a passionate reminder of the movement’s opening, gradually fading away to nothing.

The piece ends with a Moto Perpetuo. The instruments begin by dovetailing a single line which develops into two strands before a more violent section appears, punctuated by strident double stops. Both instruments have slightly manic solo episodes before the movement quickly dies away in the single line of its opening.

—Helen Grime

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