Da Camera Singers, with guests Orchestra Borealis and tenor Oliver Munar, will present the five-movement cantata Winter Nights by Canadian composer Stephanie Martin in the first half of our upcoming concert, Mozart | Martin on Saturday November 2nd, 2019. In this 2011 Q&A, Martin discussed the texts, musical ideas, and inspirations behind this evocative work.
Reposted with permission from the interviewer, Susan Mahoney.
Stephanie Martin’s Winter Nights was composed in 2011, and was dedicated to Bruce and Emily Burgetz (see below). The texts are by: Scottish poet James Thomson (1700 – 1748). The excerpt used in this cantata is from his masterpiece The Seasons. Cori Martin was born in Toronto in 1959. She teaches writing at The Ohio State University. The poem Christmas Cattle, is addressed to her sister, Stephanie. Thomas Campion (1567 – 1620) was an English poet best-known for his many lute songs.
[Note: The fourth movement, Ring out wild bells, by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), was added to the cantata after this interview was conducted, but before Pax Christi recorded the complete work.]
Q and A with Stephanie Martin
By Susan Mahoney, Pax Christi alto
- In Winter Nights, we hear both musical dissonance and moments when traditional harmonies reign. As a composer, when do you choose one over the other?
In an academic environment one might feel pressure to write in an avant-garde style, but I subscribe to the vision of the “holy triangle” between composer, performer and audience. In an ideal musical triangle, a new piece can satisfy the intellectual needs of the composer, respect the limitations of the performing forces, and move the audience.
- The texts for Winter Nights came from the 17th and 18th centuries, and from 2010. How and why did you choose them?
My sister Cori Martin “stands on the shoulders of giants.” She is a very intellectual writer and many of her poems allude to classical poetry, or have hidden meanings or riddles, much like the metaphysical poets of the Renaissance. My sister always took the time to explain complex poetry to me, and much of my appreciation for English oratorio comes from her thoughtful consideration of the medieval texts of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, Wilfred Owen’s poetry in Britten’s War Requiem, Byron, Shakespeare and much more. She suggested I look at James Thomson’s poem The Seasons. The other texts are from Thomas Campion, whose lute songs are well known, and the first movement is derived from anonymous folklore about the weather which we all pretend is true.
- The third movement is a musical setting of the poem, “Christmas Cattle”, written by your sister, Cori, invoking Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen.” When you two were children, did you really sneak out to the barn at midnight on Christmas Eve to see if the oxen were kneeling?
Yes, that actually happened. We were farm kids, but we grew up with a wealth of poetry, music and literature in our home. We were also children driven by the scientific method (we were raised to question what we read) and we felt it necessary to prove Thomas Hardy’s claim. We debated over the results of the experiment, and listeners may be prompted to take the same question home for discussion. What did it mean that some cattle were kneeling and some were not?
- Q – You have dedicated Winter Nights to Bruce and Emily Burgetz. Regular Pax Christi patrons will have seen Emily’s name in the program many times, but tell us why you dedicated your new composition to the Burgetz family?
Emily has been the driving administrative force behind this choir for more than a quarter of a century. She was there when the choir was formed and she has presided over four artistic directors. She is totally dedicated to the choir and understands how important a choir is in bringing a community together. I couldn’t think of a better anniversary gift than to dedicate a new piece to her. I wanted to recognize Bruce as well. As the “silent partner” behind the choir president, I know he has supported our efforts in many ways over the years.
Winter Nights – Stephanie Martin
- Cold Is The Night – Anonymous
Cold is the night when stars shine bright.
Red sky at night, sailors’ delight.
When the wind is out of the East,
‘tis neither good for man nor beast.
When sounds travel wide, a stormy day will betide.
Cold is the night when stars shine bright.
- Loud Rings The Frozen Earth – James Thomson (1700 – 1748)
Loud rings the frozen earth, and hard reflects
A double noise;
From pole to pole the rigid influence falls
Through the still night, incessant, heavy, strong,
And seizes nature fast.
See, Winter comes to rule the varied year,
Sullen and sad, with all his rising train-
Vapours, and clouds, and storms. Be these my theme,
These, that exalt the soul to solemn thought
And heavenly musing.
Welcome, kindred glooms!
Congenial horrors, hail!
- Christmas Cattle – Cori Martin (2010)
Could it be true, old Thomas Hardy’s tale:
at midnight, Christmas Eve, the oxen kneel
to Bethlehem? Our parents slept. We kept
a vigil till the magic hour, then crept
outside, across the glittering, frozen snow
to see this vision promised long ago.
And, Lo! Behold! There were the cattle in
the moonlit barn, a huddled congregation
mangered, softly lowing like singers choired
in their stalls. Yet, I feel some cattle shared
the doubts then sprouting in my childish thought.
For some were kneeling there. And some were not.
- Ring out wild bells – Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
- Now Winter Nights Enlarge – Thomas Campion (1617)
Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours;
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o’erflow with wine,
Let well-turned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep’s leaden spells remove.
This time doth well dispense
With lovers’ long discourse;
Much speech hath some defense,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights.