Behind today’s Advent Calendar door is one of the most stunning choral works i’ve heard in the last few years. i was fortunate enough to experience the first performance of Helena Tulve’s Nächtliche Gesänge [Night Songs] at the World Music Days in 2019. The two songs use texts from German poets Paul Celan and Hilde Domin respectively, the first of which is by far the longer of the two. It’s partly for that reason that, at the première, i felt that the second song “though beautiful was somewhat less involving […] no doubt due to the power of the first”. That was true then and it’s still true now, though over time i’ve come to appreciate it much better, as well as understanding more clearly the relationship and connections between the two songs.
One of the main qualities they share – and it’s a quality that permeates other choral music by Tulve – is a desire to linger on words, to want to keep them on the lips and tongue in an exceptionally intimate and tactile way. It’s one of many reasons why Tulve’s approach to word-setting sounds so intense, at times (above all in You and I, composed two years earlier) becoming deeply, almost privately, sensuous. Both of the Nächtliche Gesänge speak about love – though in a more complex, qualified way than in You and I – and to an extent can be heard as a continuation of the same mode of impassioned expression.
The shorter second song, ‘Zärtliche Nacht’ [Tender Night], is seemingly all about lingering, the music moving slowly, holding onto the words while at the same time being directly shaped by them, throwing them aloft as if to admire them, oscillating around them in small moments of preoccupation. As a consequence, harmony, though not exactly static, at times becomes suspended; from “nicht was schön” the sopranos move within a dronal episode, and again right at the end (“zärtliche”), undulating as if completely mesmerised by the power of the words. All the same, there’s a vulnerability, even a precariousness, to ‘Zärtliche Nacht’ that, in addition to its shorter duration, distinguishes it from the other song.
By contrast the first song, ‘Nachts, wenn das Pendel der Liebe schwingt’ [In the night, when the pendulum of love swings], is so robust and heartfelt that it becomes overwhelming. Here, the desire not to let go of the words is so acute that for well over a minute the choir can’t bring themselves to move beyond the first word, “Nachts” becoming a mantra pervading all the voices, lovingly enunciated either through close unisons or small falling phrases as if the notes were being caressed as they emerged into the air. A unison “nachts” is the cue for the choir finally to move on, but before long they’re fixated by “schwingt” [swings], again uniting on it before elaborating it through a mixture of suspended and falling notes. This is going to be the behaviour of the singers throughout the song, tightly packed together such that trying to hear them as a group of voices is often less meaningful than as a single, united, multifaceted ‘voice’. As in the other song, dronal sequences emerge (e.g. “stößt dein Wort”) – an integral part of the mesmeric nature of the musical language – at which point the close weave of the choir pulls somewhat looser apart, though never enough to change the fundamentally compacted density of the choir.
Apropos: something i observed at the première, and which further listenings have only made more apparent, are twin contrasting demeanours that come about from this way of deploying the singers. The music displays an outer poise, the voices moving as one in a careful, graceful way, while its interior is absolutely ablaze with passion. Tulve simply marks the score ‘Intensivo’, yet what arises from that single word is an inextricable network of individual sources of fire accumulating into a coruscating score of excruciating magnitude. This is in no way diminished when the voices switch to sibilance and breath, if anything heightening the emotion further, until they re-solidify (“und das”), getting caught again in another overlapping sequence both hypnotised by and enacting the phrase “geht um” [goes around], in the process building to climax. Tulve allows the music to break free of this spell through loud octave unisons (“groß wie die Schemen der Zukunft”), potentially broken further a minute later when the choir’s cohesion splinters and certain voices extrude outwards. Yet as if drawn by an inner attractive force, they pull back together and more than before become slow and measured, articulating the final line as if they can hardly bring themselves to move on to the next word. From above, everything resolves, though deeper below and within, much remains unresolved.
The world première of Nächtliche Gesänge was given by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Kaspars Putniņš.
I. Nachts, wenn das Pendel der Liebe schwingt
Nachts, wenn das Pendel der Liebe schwingt
zwischen Immer und Nie,
stößt dein Wort zu den Monden des Herzens
und dein gewitterhaft blaues
Aug reicht der Erde den Himmel.
Aus fernem, aus traumgeschwärztem
Hain weht uns an das Verhauchte,
und das Versäumte geht um,
groß wie die Schemen der Zukunft.
Was sich nun senkt und hebt,
gilt dem zuinnerst Vergrabenen:
Blind wie der Blick, den wir tauschen,
küsst es die Zeit auf den Mund.
In the night, when the pendulum of love swings
between ever and never
your word comes to the moons of the heart
and your stormy blue eye
reaches from the earth to the heavens.
From the distant, from the blackened dream
Grove the breath drifts to us
And that which is lost goes around,
large as the schemes of the future.
What now declines and rises
Is directed at those buried right inside:
Blank as the look which we exchange,
It kisses time on the mouth.
II. Zärtliche Nacht
Es kommt die Nacht
da liebst du
nicht was schön –
was häßlich ist.
Nicht was steigt –
was schon fallen muß.
Nicht wo du helfen kannst –
wo du hilflos bist.
Es ist eine zärtliche Nacht,
die Nacht da du liebst,
nicht retten kann.
There comes the night
when you love
not what is not beautiful –
but what is ugly.
Not what rises –
but what must already fall.
Not where you can help –
but where you are helpless.
It is a tender night
the night when you love