Winter Songs

Program Notes: Winter Songs (2017, music by James Rolfe, words by Archibald Lampman (1861 – 1899) and Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)

Winter Songs explores Christmas from the perspective of having grown up in an atheist home in suburban Ottawa in the 1960s. For me, Christmas was winter, new snow, skiing, presents, no school, playing all day indoors and out, eating, and singing. Some of my earliest and fondest musical memories are of Christmas carols, such as Silent Night and Away in a Manger, which can still bring tears to my eyes. Carols celebrate childhood, as well as rebirth, hope, renewal, and especially peace. They express our profound collective yearning to live in peace and harmony with ourselves and our fellow creatures. These themes connect to pre-Christian celebrations of winter solstice and the new year which have since become associated with the Christmas season—themes which I aim to evoke in this work.

This ten-minute work includes a brass band of 20 brass instruments (a mix of trumpets, cornets, horns, euphoniums, trombones, and tubas) and two percussionists, as well as a large mixed choir. The words consist of two poems (see texts below) by Ottawa poet Archibald Lampman (1861-1899) and one by American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892). The Lampman poems speak eloquently to the wonder, peace, and beauty of winter in Ottawa, while Whitman invokes the bursting life force that lies latent beneath ice and snow.

Winter Songs was commissioned by the Hannaford Street Silver Band with the assistance of the Ontario Arts Council. My thanks to them and to David Pell (Artistic Director, HSSB).

After Mist (Archibald Lampman)

Last night there was a mist. Pallid and chill
The yellow moon-blue clove the thickening sky,
And all night long a gradual wind crept by,
And froze the fog, and with minutest skill
Fringed it and forked it, adding bead to bead,
In spears, and feathery tufts, and delicate hems
Round windward trunks, and all the topmost stems,
And every bush, and every golden weed;
And now upon the meadows silvered through
And forests frosted to their farthest pines–
A last faint gleam upon the misty blue–
The magic of the morning falls and shines,
A creamy splendour on a dim white world,
Broidered with violet, crystalled and impearled.

Winter Uplands (Archibald Lampman)

The frost that stings like fire upon my cheek,
The loneliness of this forsaken ground,
The long white drift upon whose powdered peak
I sit in the great silence as one bound;
The rippled sheet of snow where the wind blew
Across the open fields for miles ahead;
The far-off city towered and roofed in blue
A tender line upon the western red;
The stars that singly, then in flocks appear,
Like jets of silver from the violet dome,
So wonderful, so many and so near,
And then the golden moon to light me home–
The crunching snowshoes and the stinging air,
And silence, frost, and beauty everywhere.

Unseen Buds (Walt Whitman)

Unseen buds, infinite, hidden well,
Under the snow and ice, under the darkness, in every square or cubic inch,
Germinal, exquisite, in delicate lace, microscopic, unborn,
Like babes in wombs, latent, folded, compact, sleeping;
Billions of billions, and trillions of trillions of them waiting,
(On earth and in the sea—the universe—the stars there in the heavens,)
Urging slowly, surely forward, forming endless,
And waiting ever more, forever more behind.