Children of Cloud and Frost

This year in Trondheim,  Tove Ramlo-Ystad and the unmistakably excellent women’s vocal ensemble Cantus are celebrating their 30th year of singing.  With recent international tours, a 2016 Grammy-nominated album (Spes), as well as an upcoming album with Decca, they are fulfilling their role as one of the very best choirs in the world.  It is here in a cold Trondheim, at the cozy Dromedar Kaffebar, that I write to you.

cantus-koret

My friendship with Tove and Cantus has developed very much recently and resulted in a collaborative opportunity this fall.  As with most situations like this, the proper poem to use appeared out of the mist and I think it turned out to be perfect for these fair children of the frosty north.

Stand here by my side and turn, I pray,
On the lake below thy gentle eyes;
The clouds hang over it, heavy and gray,
and dark and silent the water lies;
And out of that frozen mist the snow
In wavering flakes begins to flow;
Flake after flake
They sink in the dark and silent lake.

See how in a living swarm they come
From the chambers beyond the misty veil;
Some hover awhile in the air, and some
Rush prone from the sky like summer hail.
All, dropping swiftly or settling slow,
Meet and are still in the depths below;
Flake after flake
Dissolved in the dark and silent lake.

Here delicate snow-stars, out of the cloud,
Come floating downward in airy play,
Like spangles dropped from the glistening crowd
That whiten by night the milky-way;
There broader and burlier masses fall;
The sullen water buries them all —
Flake after flake
All drowned in the dark and silent lake.

And some, as on tender wings they glide
From their chilly birth-cloud, dim and gray,
Are joined in their fall, and, side by side,
Come clinging along their unsteady way;
As friend with friend, or husband with wife,
Makes hand in hand the passage of life;
Each mated flake
Soon sinks in the dark and silent like.

Lo! while we are gazing, in swifter haste
Stream down the snows, till the air is white,
As, myriads by myriads madly chased,
They fling themselves from their shadowy height.
The fair, frail creatures of middle sky,
What speed they make, with their grave so nigh;
Flake after flake,
To lie in the dark and silent lake!

I see in thy gentle eyes a tear;
They turn to me in sorrowful thought;
Thou thinkest of friends, the good and dear,
Who were for a time and now are not;
Like these fair children of cloud and frost,
That glisten for a moment and then are lost,
Flake after flake —
All lost in the dark and silent lake.

Yet look again, for the clouds divide;
A gleam of blue on the water lies;
And far away, on the mountain-side,
A sunbeam falls from the opening skies.
But the hurrying host that flew between
The cloud and the water, no more is seen;
Flake after flake,
At rest in the dark and silent lake.

— William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

brooklyn_museum_-_william_cullen_bryant_-_wyatt_eaton_-_overallThe words penned here fit in quite well with Bryant’s natural and spiritual milieu, most vividly seen in his landmark poem “Thanatopsis.”  His poetry is permeated with melancholy, tenderness, and a love of wilderness and nature.  The deep nostalgia that almost drips from the words as you read them to some critics has come across as sappy, yet to others appear as very wise and filled with meaning and heart.  Mary Mapes Dodge wrote in Schoolroom Poets, “You will admire more and more, as you grow older, the noble poems of this great and good man.”

In “The Snow Shower,” like his other poetry, he looks closely at an aspect of nature — in this case, the falling snow.  It is nearly impossible, I think, not to get entranced by the image he portrays, which really is like the entrancing character of looking at falling snow.  Can you picture it?  Do you remember that moment, when staring into the falling snow, where your mind and heart slowed and you felt a deeper…something?  Time slows and a panoply of memories race as the ‘fair, frail creatures of middle sky’ ‘come floating downward in airy play, like spangles dropped from the glistening crowd.’ I know this feeling well, and the result is captured excellently by Edgar Allen Poe, who said about Bryant’s poetry, “The impression left is one of a pleasurable sadness.”  Exactly.

One truly is moved when Bryant transitions to the last two stanzas.  In only two stanzas he takes a great sadness and points to something that can only be described as ‘hope.’  We understand why he took time to say things such as:

“…From their chilly birth-cloud, dim and gray,
Are joined in their fall, and, side by side,
Come clinging along their unsteady way;
As friend with friend, or husband with wife,
Makes hand in hand the passage of life;
Each mated flake…”

These snow flakes, when your eye looks beyond the transportive snow and focuses on the ‘other’ that is beyond, become people and memories.  There is both a great joy in this thought and great sadness.  “Thou thinkest of friends, the good and dear, Who were for a time and now are not; Like these fair children of cloud and frost, That glisten for a moment and then are lost…” Regret… Love… Joy… Pain… Faith… Sorrow… Birth… Family… etc. all encompassed by a white dot flying and floating across the sky.

Yet.

Yet look again and what do you see?  It is very distant but it is there…. a sunbeam falls on the mountainside.  How beautiful!  How enrapturing that ray of light against the dark!  Oh what hope and joy the clouds divided to share with us (even if for only a moment) the light that is ever present that we currently cannot see.  It is there.  Night will assuredly soon be over.  Nox praecessit.

This is Life.

Cantus has had a very trying time as of late.  Their conductor of 30 years, Tove Ramlo-Ystad, lost her husband Tor Ystad this summer.  He was a very beloved man, and it was an absolutely devastating loss to all who knew him, and still has a palpable effect on their tender hearts — yet Cantus banded together and supported their conductor and her family with care, sympathy, and deep love.

When asked to compose a piece this year, I wanted to speak into this tragic pain with my piece in some way, and this poem became a deep and poignant way.  Tor became a ‘delicate, snow-star,’ one we behold and marvel, and in such haste it is gone – gone too soon.  I dearly wanted this piece to be the light on the mountainside, not just for my dear friend Tove and her family, but also for these strong women of Cantus.

______________________

I was 7 years old when Cantus sang their first notes together.  What a marvel to imagine that little boy in Minnesota and the great joy he would feel when he finally would meet those fair children of cloud and frost.  For that is what the beautiful singers of Cantus are to me.

Happy 30th Birthday,

Eric

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