Britta Byström – Der Vogel der Nacht (World Première)

by 5:4
5 minutes read

The work i’m featuring today in my Advent Calendar is one that takes its starting point from one of my favourite pieces of music, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. One of Mahler’s most epic symphonies, in the fourth movement the music turns inward, into a place of mystery, darkness, night and eternity. In the heart of this is an occasional recurring phrase, played by oboe or cor anglais, evoking the sound of a calling bird; Mahler marks the phrase “hinaufziehen” (pulled up), indicating a glissando, and to emphasis its connection to the natural world adds the instruction “Wie ein Naturlaut” (like a sound of nature).

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 3 – IV, Fig. 2

This plaintive call is both the inspiration for, and a recurring feature of, Britta Byström‘s 2010 orchestral work Der Vogel der Nacht. However, while the title suggests a similarly nocturnal environment, Byström’s soundworld is a long way from the dark mystery of Mahler’s. The piece is essentially caught in an interplay between energy and suspension, a playful tension in which the two mingle and overlap. The energy is heard in flurries of chatter, like groups of birds sitting together chirping to themselves, to one another, to the world at large. This never goes away, and is arguably the most prevalent element in the work as a whole. The suspension, primarily given to the strings, is expressed in various ways, one of which is heard in rising glissandi that hint at the oboe phrase. More substantially it’s heard in the strings’ sustained music, introducing a lushness at the outset of the piece, in due course turning more gentle and contemplative. In the midst of both, the oboe phrase is heard (sadly without a glissando), first by an oboe, later by a trumpet as part of a soloistic episode.

Byström channels the tension between these opposite behaviours into various stratified sequences where a multitude of things seem to be happening at once: multiple strands of birdsong, multiple sustained lines, all moving concentrically, at once individual yet sympathetic and integral to the texture as a whole. On just two occasions the orchestra unites into a single, homogeneous unit: at the midpoint, in a huge glittering surge, and at the very end, in what could be heard as a final united call.

There’s something rather beguiling about the way Der Vogel der Nacht continually flits between exuberant and contemplative states of mind, all the more so as at no point do we hear them as opposites, but rather two very different but complementary aspects of a single musical identity.

The world première of Der Vogel der Nacht took place in August 2010 at the Baltic Sea Festival, performed by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa‐Pekka Salonen

Programme note

Der Vogel der Nacht (The Bird of Night), wrote Gustav Mahler in the original score to his Third Symphony, as a comment to a small oboe phrase in the fourth movement. The words come from a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin. In the completed score, Mahler changed the poetry for an instruction: “Wie ein Naturlaut”. The little phrase, repeated like a sad signal, seems to comment the surrounding music. In an essay about Mahler’s Third, the Swedish author Carl-Johan Malmberg compares it to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven: a voice which keeps saying “Nevermore” to the longing human. This was the image I had in mind during the composition process. Distorted echoes of the little “signalphrase” create a kind of refrain between other, brighter parts in the piece – parts of “longing”. In these, I have let the bells which accompany boy’s and women’s choirs in the fifth movement in Mahler’s symphony wander into the piece, dressed in new notes. Mahler’s post-horn solo and the long, hymnlike ending have also left traces in my composition. And one can find echoes of other birds than “the bird of night”: the lonely singer transforms suddenly into a whole bird choir, chirping in dawn.

—Britta Byström

Full score

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