5&1, Part 19: Rosy-Fingered Dawn (Heliophiles of the World Unite!)

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For years as an inveterate night-owl, the dawn has been one of those natural phenomena I mostly appreciate in the hypothetical rather than in experience. But as middle-age has set in, I have found myself waking earlier and unintentionally glimpsing its glories with greater frequency. It’s hard not to be moved, especially if, like the Psalmist’s watchmen, one has found oneself longing for the end of night (Ps 130:5-6). It never palls. No wonder then that composers have been stirred by the first flickers of the sun’s ‘rosy-fingered’ rays (to quote Homer) to capture the ineffable in the audible.

We have already heard one of (if not) the greatest dawns in classical music: Strauss’ Alpine Symphony right back in the very first 5&1, so unfortunately that’s banned. But I do recommend you return to it. Turn all the lights off and the volume up high; then as the music grows, gradually open the curtains and/or turn on the lights. Then start air-conducting with abandon. Even better, get up early, go outside and accompany these heavenly glories from your headphones. Plus air-conduct.

1. “In the Beginning, God” & “Now vanish before the holy beams” (The Creation, 1798)

Josef Haydn (1732-1809, Austrian)
Michael George (bass), Christopher Hogwood (conductor), Choir of New College Oxford, Academy of Ancient Music

Haydn’s Creation is a musical epic, inspired both by Genesis 1-2 and by John Milton’s Paradise Lost. If you don’t know it, frankly, this is a problem. It’s up there with the other choral masterpieces like Messiah by Handel and Requiem by Mozart. It’s also a huge amount of fun to sing if you ever get the chance.

After the Overture, entitled by Haydn as The Representation of Chaos, the bass soloist flings us into the cosmic drama. Ostensibly, he is simply announcing the opening verses of the Bible. But I can almost guarantee that it is not until you’ve heard the Austrian composer’s setting of them that you will get a senses of how staggering it all is.

There should be a health warning, though. I do recommend having the volume on 10 or 11, because it starts very quiet indeed. But make sure you fasten your seatbelts too because otherwise you’ll jump out of your skin. In fact, I suggest you don’t listen the very first time while driving.

2. Four Sea Interludes: 1. On The Beach (from Peter Grimes, Op. 33, 1945)

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976, English)
Sir Colin Davis (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Now, I realise we visited Peter Grimes’ beach at Aldeburgh in Suffolk (near where I grew up) in week 2. So, you might accuse me of inconsistency. In my defence, I previously chose the third sea interlude and this is the first. So there. But I adore all four. It really is so evocative of time and place. Suffolk isn’t on everybody’s itinerary when they come to England (thankfully!) but 5&1 readers are a cultural elite, so I give you permission to visit. The beaches are not archetypally great—most do not have expanses of sand but are narrow and pebbly; parts of this coastline are nicknamed Shingle Street for good reason. Because it also lies at Britain’s most easterly point (which is not saying very much, to be fair), it is always the first part of the country to see the sun every morning, creeping over the North Sea horizon.

The sun makes all the difference in the world, whether it’s visible or not. And to my mind, this movement evokes a grey and overcast morning where darkness is supplanted by first light. The North Sea rarely offers idyllic views; it is usually battleship grey streaked by trails of muddy brown. But even this is transformed by daylight. And Britten’s depiction is perfection.

3. Tableau III: Lever du jour (Daybreak) from Daphnis & Chloé (M. 57)

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937, French)
Marion Ralincourt (flute), François-Xavier Roth (conductor), Les Siècles, Ensemble Aedes

Fly a few hundred miles south, of course, and it’s a different matter entirely. Cloudless skies and summer heat—and oh! the glory of those first morning rays! Ravel’s depiction is spine-tinglingly beautiful. He takes an ancient classical story set about a young boy and girl from the Greek island of Lesbos. They had been abandoned at birth but get fostered by two neighbouring goatherds. They grow up and (inevitably) fall in love; they undergo various trials and tribulations; finally meet their birthparents; they end up happily ever after.

Ravel was commissioned to write a new ballet by Serge Diaghilev, the famous Russian founder of the Ballets Russes in Paris. The result was a one-act composition, made up of three scenes (‘tableaux’), but lasting almost an hour in total. This track opens the third and we are transported to daybreak in a magical, mythical scene of grotto belonging to nymphs. The music reflects the whole of the natural world as it is gradually returns to life and the rays creep over the horizon. It’s wonderful. The dawn chorus of birds comes to life, sheep are being led out to pasture, and herdsmen can set out to find Daphnis after having previously abandoned the search at nightfall.

This is truly the music of the sublime.

4. Dawn (from the soundtrack of Pride and Prejudice, 2005)

Dario Marianelli (1963- , Italian)
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

From the waking natural world, we turn to a waking household. Jane Austen’s classic has inspired countless dramatizations, rip-offs and satires. But Joe Wright’s film (with Keira Knightley and Matthew McFadyen) is much loved and rightly so. Though I still think the BBC series (with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth) is far better, but perhaps this marks a generational divide (despite the fact that I couldn’t care less about blokes climbing out of lakes wearing baggy white shirts). I particularly love the soundtrack for its simplicity and artfulness. Marianelli is an Italian composer who studied in London for a number of years and who has worked with Wright a few times.

He composed something that feels entirely in keeping with the classical sound worlds of a Mozart or early Beethoven in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Yet, he brilliantly manages to avoid pastiche while creating something that feels authentically English and contemporary (perhaps largely because of his deliberate cross-rhythms). With the lead consistently given to the Fortepiano (a classical forerunner of the modern pianoforte and the great embodiment of the era’s domestic music-making so beloved of the Bennets), how appropriate to open the entire movie with a solo piano. It is performed by the superb French soloist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

The movie’s opening images are of early morning fog floating on the fields just before as the sun creeps up accompanied by a simple melody of heart-breaking beauty. As the sun rises, the Bennet household seems to yawn and stretch and begin yet another day of fraught, domestic frivolity and chaos!

5. Helios Overture (Op. 17)

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931, Danish) 
Niklas Willén (conductor), South Jutland Symphony Orchestra

Nielson was Denmark’s greatest composer, but he was inspired to write the Helios Overture by a visit to Greece. His wife, the sculptor Anne-Marie, had been invited there as part of an award to study ancient artefacts in the Acropolis Museum. While she was working, Carl was given access to a piano and time to roam. The two would go on walks in the Achaean hills and beyond. He was thus inspired to write a piece of an orchestral work depicting the sun (helios in both ancient and modern Greek) rising over the Aegean Sea. However, in contrast to the other pieces in this list, Nielsen takes us to the other end of the day, with the light fading far to the west.

Nielsen wrote above the score:

Silence and darkness,
The sun rises with a joyous song of praise,
It wanders its golden way
and sinks quietly into the sea.

—Carl Nielsen

This is another piece to set hearts racing.

Prelude from Act I Akhnaten (1983)

Philip Glass (1937- , American)
Paul Esswood (Akhnaten), Milagro Vargas (Nefertiti), Dennis Russell Davies (conductor), Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra & Chorus

Our final outing takes us even further into back into history, far beyond the realms of Greek myth and Achaean sunrises. We are now in Ancient Egypt, albeit in the hands of an American composer still living.

The Pharaoh Akhnaten (aka Amenhotep IV) was a highly controversial ruler over Egypt because convention holds that he sought to revolutionize a famously polytheistic society into one that was rigidly monotheistic. He is associated with the introduction of Atenism, the worship of Aten (the Sun) and Philip Glass’s opera features a modern translation of his Hymn to the Sun. Glass (alongside Steve Reich and John Adams, both featured in 5&1, Part 9 on the mechanical world) is one the best so-called Minimalists, whereby music develops primarily through small, incremental shifts. He was fascinated by individuals whose genius or brilliance enabled them to have a disproportionate impact on their generations and so wrote two other, related operas about Einstein and Gandhi.

This track opens the opera, and, through repeated arpeggios that repeat in keys around A minor, we are immediately immersed into a sense of foreboding. Something ominous and unsettling is on the horizon. Now, normally, I would include a full composition as the final element of the playlist. However, minimalism is not everybody’s cup of tea, and most can only handle it in small doses (including me). So see how you go. If you love it, keep going. But while I don’t want to listen to it all day, Glass’s ability to convey something impending as well as grand and even majestic with very constrained musical tools is remarkable.

As a side note, scholars have speculated in recent years (largely prompted by no less a luminary than Sigmund Freud) that this determination to turn to monotheism might have had something to do with the biblical Moses. The dates certainly seem to fit, more or less. Who knows? If true, it’s fascinating to find an entirely pagan parallel to, if not actual corroboration of, an ancient Jewish phenomenon. Genesis and Exodus would of course reject the idea of sun-worship; but how amazing that a culture whose polytheism was directly challenged by Moses actually attempted in time and space to do something about it.

Click here to listen on Spotify and here to listen on Apple Music.


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