Throwback Thursday: “Northern Lights,” Ola Gjeilo


Here in D.C., we sit in breathless, panicky expectation of a whammy of a snowstorm.  It’s been a while since we’ve gotten some serious snow, so we are all tremendously excited and choosing to express our excitement through stock-piling essentials like steamer clams, green tea mochi, and cheese doodles…and then forgetting things like toilet paper and granola.  But we got a little taste of the coming storm last night when thick, pebble-sized flakes of snow started drifting down after dark.  I shuffled home through the gentle snowfall and stood under a streetlamp for a minute.  The snow was beautiful.

Everything is quieter in snow.  Snow muffles sound – car wheels, human feet- and in so doing encourages us to keep silent.  Snow is the only weather event I can think of that makes no sound.  You can hear wind, rain, hail, sleet…but you can’t hear snow.  You’re one sense down, which naturally heightens all other senses to compensate.  And we can’t help but plug that gap with our own, very personal, feelings.  All of a sudden you want to relieve your childhood through sledding, or be a better neighbor through keeping an eye out for the homeless and getting them to shelters, or dive deep into spirituality and mysticism for which silently falling snow provides a natural backdrop.

But, there comes a point in every snowy day when you huddle for warmth and feel very much like the animal you truly are – an animal that is grateful for some shelter, and a moment of stillness in which to contemplate nature’s terrible, sacred beauty.  This is what Gjeilo’s staggeringly lovely choral piece was written to celebrate.

Pulchra es amica mea,
suavis et decora sicut Jerusalem,
terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata.
Averte oculos tuos a me
quia ipsi me avolare fecerunt.

Thou art beautiful, O my love,
sweet and comely as Jerusalem,
terrible as an army set in array.
Turn away thine eyes from me,
for they have made me flee away.



Sacred Sunday: “Toumast Anlet,” Tamikrest


“The situation of the Touareg is very difficult right now. Even before I played the guitar and started recording, I had this ambition to be a lawyer or you might say, an ‘advocate’. I wanted to be capable of expressing the hurt I felt in my heart, and speak out about the situation, even at the United Nations. Because we’re a people who don’t have journalists, we don’t have advocates. But it was only later that I realised that a musician can play that role. What is the weakest part of any nation or people? It’s ignorance. We are stuck in our ignorance. I see the world changing, racing ahead, and leaving us behind. And the only thing that is holding us back is our ignorance. As artists, it’s our duty to make our problems known to the world, to sing songs about the nomadic life, about our traditions and culture. But above all, revolutionary songs, about what we see, about what the government is doing to our people, which makes no sense to me.”
– Ousmane Ag Mossa, leader of Tamikrest

Sacred Sunday: “Sanctus,” Franz Schubert



This heartbreakingly beautiful piece is from Schubert’s German Mass.  I love the version with words, of course, but this simple instrumental version is haunting.  It is my go-to for when I need to calm down and center myself.

Throwback Thursday: “The Promise of Living,” Aaron Copland



I have this sense that we all could use a collective reminder that life goes on.  This short little number by Aaron Copland should help.  Nothing is more of a soothing balm as a Copland harmony.  This piece is from his opera, “The Tender Land,” and features the hymn, “Zion’s Walls,” which Copland arranged.


FRIEND WEEK! Throwback Thursday: “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” Ralph Vaughan Williams. Submitted by Karl.


Yankette’s Reaction:

Oh boy oh boy oh boy.  I am such a RVW fangirl.  The chord progressions he wrote open up a new dimension for me.  It’s like the voice of the divine.  It sounds very, very old but still vibrant.  The “Fantasia” is the quintessential example of this. I will never forget the first time I heard it.  I was driving in the car with one of my parents, probably my Dad, and it came on the radio.  I was so entranced it was like I could see the music.  It was so beautiful, it hurt.  This is another one of those pieces that, for me, identifies and magnifies whatever mood I’m in.  It is a magical piece.

Karl’s Justification:

Most classical music enthusiasts, or so I imagine, carry around in their heads at least a few names on a list of favorite composers who we believe are not as widely appreciated as they deserve to be. (If you are fortunate, this is balanced by a list of composers who aren’t as great as everyone else seems to think, since shunning the overrated ones helps offset the expense of buying CDs of the works by the people in the underappreciated group.) My roster for the first category is alas much longer than for the second, and right at the top sits Ralph (remember it rhymes with “safe”) Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Britain’s greatest symphonist.

Vaughan Williams wrote a plethora of wonderful music over the course of more than sixty years, but among it all his most enduringly beloved work is this one. There are very few compositions anywhere in the vast Western concert repertoire that surpass the sublime Tallis Fantasia for sheer beauty. It is neither ornamental nor ramblingly mystical, but both transcendental and sensible in a way that C. S. Lewis might be able to describe. Even after having sifted through dozens of renditions of this piece over the past few days while selecting a video for this post, when played well it still gives me chills.

This performance, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, was recorded in Gloucester Cathedral, the location for which the young RVW composed the Fantasia and where he conducted the premiere of the original version in 1910 (though they presumably didn’t play it in the dark on that occasion). While the direction of this video brings to mind Fred Astaire’s declaration early in his film career that “either the camera will dance or I will,” it aptly demonstrates the peculiar ensemble called for by the composition: a string orchestra, a quartet, and an additional group of players ideally to be seated well away from the others (often positioned in an upper gallery in performances in churches or halls so equipped). If the incessant crane and dolly shots in this video drive you crazy, there are literally hundreds of other recordings of the piece on YouTube, thanks in part to its popularity among high school and university orchestra directors.

The theme of the Fantasia comes from this tune by the incomparable Thomas Tallis, which appeared in Archbishop Parker’s Psalter of 1567

Modernism Monday: “Echo,” Helen Jane Long



The author of a book I read years ago described jet lag as a soul, on a tether to the physical body, making its way back home after the body has traveled too far, too fast.  That may or may not explain why I’ve felt slightly catatonic all day today, and why this post is so late.  Another explanation is a deep sense of contented stability brought about from returning to a good life that I have worked hard to create.  Either/or.

Good night.

Sacred Sunday: “Steal Away,” Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole



Brains are weird things.  This song, for some reason, was going through my head last night as I lay in the dark dealing with both a migraine and food poisoning at the same time.  (How exciting!)  Then, after I finally fell asleep, this is why my fevered brain came up with as a dream.

I was in a bar/restaurant/liquor store and needed a strong drink to help me forget some recent heartache. I went up to the bar to order a single malt. The bartender was Elizabeth Warren. We got to talking and I discovered she owned the place. At the moment I complimented her on her excellent (and enormous) establishment, out of nowhere appeared Sam Waterston in a corduroy jacket and bow tie.  I recognized him as my traveling companion. Elizabeth offered us both a gift certificate to the restaurant plus a year of free drinks if we both agreed to seven years of indentured servitude. Even though it wasn’t clear what, exactly, that meant, Sam declined immediately, looked at me, shrugged, and walked off.  I, startled, said I needed to think about it, and left the bar/restaurant/liquor store to go to CVS, which was managed by, obviously, Shaquille O’Neal.

So, there you go.  Have some Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole to soothingly carry you through Sunday.

Sacred Sunday: “Crux Fidelis,” King Joao of Portugal



My friend’s new wife being Portuguese, I feel this an appropriate choice for today.  Also, my headache is sponsored by vinho verde, a Portuguese white wine.  So, a calm, quiet little number is also in order.  Many thanks, your highness.

Throwback Thursday: “Piano Quintet No. 2 in C minor, Op. 115,” Gabriel Fauré


Having sung the “Cantique de Jean Racine” approximately three hundred times, the first time as one of four-dozen high school students (oh how irreverently we belted out “Verrrrbegaaaaaaal ohhhhhh tray-ohhhhht,”*), I worked assertively to put quite a bit of distance between myself and Monsiuer Fauré.   I incorrectly assumed that the Cantique was all he had written, and had also conflated that piece’s unappealing pulverization with any other piece he might have written.

Mais, ça n’étais pas juste!  Exhibit A: his second piano quintet.  This piece was written in 1921, three years before Fauré’s death.  A music reviewer at its Paris premier wrote that, “We had expected a beautiful work, but not one as beautiful as this.”  Normally I abhor chamber music; its small size makes me feel both bored and claustrophobic, like I’m on a field trip to see a small town’s old, dusty geological museum.  But the emotional range of this piece is so expansive that it feels like standing on a rooftop.  It’s classical music, alright, but it’s also firmly modern.  To put this music in context, this was written about the same time as the irresistible “Doctor Jazz” (see last week’s Termagant Tuesday post), and they both have a playful attitude towards the regulations of melody, harmony, and rhythm that had confined music before.  The first bars of the first movement are so compelling, you just have to find out what happens next.  The third movement (14:54) is heartbreakingly lovely and delicate.  I’m sorry I ever doubted Fauré.


*A.k.a, “Verbe égal au Très-Haut.”