Monday 3 May 2021

Songs for a Broken World: American composer David Chesky discusses the way contemporary and historical issues intersect in his new album

David Chesky: Songs for a Broken World

The American composer David Chesky has releasing a new album Songs for a Broken World on his own label, Chesky Records. The album is a sincere statement of worries the composer feels necessary to share with the world, in which all of us live and die. It features performances from Ute Lemper, J'Nai Bridges, Pedro R Diaz, Milan Milasavljevic and the Orchestra & Choir of the 21st Century in four of Chesky's works, Remembrance for the Victims of the Vietnam War, For Our Own, Sacred Child of Aleppo and The White Rose Trilogy. This last is named for the non-violent, intellectual resistance group in Nazi Germany led by a group of students from the University of Munich, including Sophie Scholl whose centenary is this year.

In this guest posting David Chesky shares some of his thoughs on why he has written the music:

Songs for a Broken World, why ? Because we are witness to the breakdown of this world in my humble opinion. And I do hope it is temporary, and I hope we can learn from this and correct our course.

With the threat that emerged with the re-election of Donald Trump—whose administration poisoned American political culture, trampled over democratic norms, and miserably failed the test posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of the increasing violence of Trump’s followers, I looked to the resistance group The White Rose, whose humanism led its members to risk their lives fighting the National Socialist regime. We need a White Rose today. We need someone with the strength of Sophie Scholl.

The first section of The White Rose Ttrilogy takes place in 1943, when Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans were caught distributing flyers at the University of Munich and handed over to the Gestapo. In two trials, Hans and Sophie Scholl, along with four other members of The White Rose, were sentenced to death and subsequently executed.   

The first movement of The White Rose Ttrilogy has the character of a lament; I wanted to capture the feeling of fear and terror with the orchestra, choir and the mezzo-soprano,  J'Nai Bridges. This is the accusation. 

The second movement, 'The Names of the Rose' begins with an orchestral introduction, followed by a motive of a second and a fourth in the choir. The motive is imitated, varied, and exchanged throughout the ensemble. Ute Lemper reads the full names of the 17 accused resistance fighters over the orchestra. She begins calmly and keep increasing the intensity of the names from pp to ff and the recitation of the names, are given further resonance in the middle section through echo effects,  and glockenspiel, a sign of time running out. The final name – intoned while the strings hold a chord and the harp and glockenspiel play a variation of the opening motive – is Sophie Magdalena Scholl.  

The young members of The White Rose didn’t have a complete political theory or ideology to guide them. Some considered themselves social democrats, while others, such as their professor and mentor Carl Huber, were classical liberals. For many, Christian beliefs played an important role. Sophie Scholl, baptized as a Protestant, developed a strong personal interest in Catholicism. The resistance of The White Rose was based in part on the experiences of war that some members had as soldiers; however, a stronger influence was the compassion and horror at the oppression of Jews. One of Sophie Scholl’s campaign slogans was “One must do something to not be guilty. We need hard minds and soft hearts.” This call to empathy and rationality is especially relevant in our time, when hostility to science and rejection of facts go hand in hand with remorselessness and selfishness.    

The final movement of the trilogy works in terms of Sophie Scholl’s ascension to heaven and canonization. The work opens with the sound of the glockenspiel, followed by a chord which builds up from low to high. The mezzo-soprano enters with a descending interval; the tritone from the close of the first movement resolves to a fourth. In this falling motive, Scholl’s ascension is simultaneously presented as a homecoming (“Come to me, my child”). As the choir enters, the low voices take up the mezzo-soprano’s motive of the fourth. Meanwhile, she sings a second theme in quarter notes as counterpoint. This theme, in turn, is taken up by the choir and developed in the style of a canon with religious elements in a liturgy for the dead.  

As events in Europe and the United States have shown, the dangers of Fascism, war and autocracy have remained prescient through the 20th century and to this day. That’s why I decided to take on the crises of the past, as well as of our time in Songs from a broken world.  

Another subject that has haunted me for years is the Vietnam war. Three million Vietnamese slaughtered, for what? Have we shown any remorse or have just moved on a pushed this under the rug? This is my attempt to express my personal sorrow for what happened there. And then we move on to the killing of children in these senseless mid-east wars. Yes indeed, this world is broken, thus Sacred Child of Aleppo.

David Chesky
David Chesky

In addition to these works my friends at the Metropolitan Opera in New York asked me to write something to about the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic. For Our Own is dedicated to the violist Vincent Lionti, who played with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for more than 30 years and died on April 4, 2020, from complications of the disease. He was just 60 years old. The piece is the only one on the album without a vocal part. It is centered around a haunting dialogue between a viola and an English horn (cor anglais). The English horn starts alone with a powerful lament, calls the viola to join it, and, after the latter goes silent, repeats a variation of the main theme, while the first violins rise up to ever higher planes. In an analogy to the frame of a painting, the music of the introduction – combining held chords, tolling bells, and a motive which progresses in quarter notes – is repeated at the end.   

The piece, like all works in this collection, was composed to honor the memory of the admired and loved ones we have lost in the crises of the past and the present, as well as the spirit of resistance and hope that lives on.  

Be Safe
David Chesky
New York City 

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

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