Worth Remembering: Eric Ericson

Eric Ericson

I’ve been thinking for some time about composing a few odes to particular people who have passed on under the blog title “Worth Remembering.” These people will generally not be those heralded by the masses or famous. They will probably be even easily forgotten. But they shouldn’t be. They should be remembered, because they were unique for the right reasons and not the wrong. I suppose the simplest way of saying it is that they should be remembered because they are “worth” being remembered. Don’t fret now, of course everyone is worth being remembered, but there are indeed souls that have a found a resonance with purpose and have become something innately special.

Eric Ericson is truly one of these people. It is a bit of a tragedy that many American choral musicians do not recognize his impact on choral music. Born in 1918, Eric became the famed director of the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir and acclaimed Swedish Radio Choir. He also conducted the men’s ensemble, Orphei Dränger.

I yield to the expertise of Dr. Richard Sparks on the ‘why’ of Eric Ericson’s special place in the world. He was intimately aware of Eric’s place in choral music and the world. He has written much on the subject, including:

Dr. Richard Sparks

Eric Ericson Birthday Tribute

Eric Ericson passes at 94

More on Eric Ericson

Specifically in Sparks’ blog post “More on Eric Ericson”, he states:

Overall, Eric’s career has been extraordinary. He built ensembles (now nearly 65 years with the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir) with a technical quality unmatched by others in their era, made recordings that still hold up as models many years later, stimulated numerous composers to write for the a cappella idiom, taught four decades worth of choral conductors in Sweden and many abroad, and has inspired choral conductors throughout the world.

Is it silly to say even I, an early-30s Minnesota boy feels connected in some way to Eric’s work in Sweden? I’m not so sure it is silly.

I remember having a wonderful and intimate dinner with Gunilla Luboff in Seattle several years ago at a restaurant called Purple. The primary conversation was about my relationship with Walton Music, but as we often do because of our friendship, we opined about Sweden. I mentioned that there was an almost indescribable connection to a country I had yet to visit – yet was somehow fulfilled in the music of composers such as Lindbergh or Olssen as sung by the Swedish choirs. She opened up in special ways about Norman Luboff’s visits to Sweden, her interactions with Eric and Gary Graden over the years. It feels like a special world that I could only dream about being a part of.

I also remember hearing stories from my mentor and friend Dr. Geoffrey Boers and his interaction with the special and uniquely effective conducting of Eric. Seeing Eric conduct is certainly special for any discerning choral conductor. Questions arise – what is he doing? Why is he doing what he is doing? I get the feeling that many don’t understand his utterly unique gesture, but all are left with the absolute power of his intent.

Even at the close of his life, he showed his genius.

And I remain humbled by a man I’ve never met.

There was a conversation a year or so I had with Gunilla where I mentioned my intention that I was going to send a hand-written letter to Eric, essentially telling him what a profound impact he had on a kid from Minnesota. I actually wrote the letter, but what a strange tragedy it is that I never ended up sending it! It laid on my desk for many months. Was there a reason I didn’t send it? I’m not sure.

One thing I am sure of, is that Eric Ericson’s impact on American choral music remains greatly understated, and I hope as years go on, at least I will be a memorial to his impact. Perhaps even the greatest compliment any colleague may give me in the future is to say that I or my gesture remind them of Eric.

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Unearthing EWB – Dawn

COMPOSITIONAL CONTEXT

The summer before I moved to Seattle in 2007 I decided to send a couple pieces to several choirs in the Northwest region, including choirs like Choral Arts, Opus7, and The Esoterics.  Now as most composers may tell you this generally is a bit of a gamble and often a waste, for conductors of fine ensembles are inundated with manuscripts from composers trying to find performances.  Most often, the scores sit on the conductor’s piano, glanced at, untouched, or skimmed and filed (maybe even in file 13).  So I knew this, but I took it to be an opportunity at minimum to get my name in the ear of these fine choirs and their conductors.

At the time, Choral Arts was transitioning between two fantastic conductors, Dr. Richard Sparks (currently at University of North-Texas) and Dr. Robert Bode (conservatory at University of Missouri, Kansas City).  My scores were of secondary importance to a choir during an important transition and they could have been lost in the shuffle, but somehow they made it Robert’s box and waited patiently for his perusal.

Richard Sparks, Robert Bode, Eric Barnum

I got a call in August of 2008 from Robert, who I hadn’t met, and we hit it off immediately.  He had a proposition (he wouldn’t say it was risky, but I would! and am still grateful to this day), for me to compose a short piece for their upcoming “Mornings Like This” album, set to a poem written by him.  I instantly said yes without even pondering.  It was an honor to be asked, but to be nearly guaranteed a spot on a professional recording on a label like Gothic is truly a gift for a young composer.  But, the caveat was he needed it quick.  How quick?  Lets just say quick.  He sent the poem on a Friday.

I sent the piece to him on Sunday afternoon.

I don’t mention this to boast about how quick I can compose a piece, but to share my deep belief in the inspirational quality of Robert’s poetry.  This was our first collaboration and we have done many others over recent years i.e. Healing Heart, Carol of the Angels, Conflagration.  Each time feels as though I am transcribing music already present in the text, not necessarily adding anything special of my own.  He and Thomas Hood (1799-1845) seem to be the poets most resonant to my heart.

In 2010, Dawn was chosen for one of Conspirare’s fantastic Carillon concerts by Craig Hella Johnson.  Craig and I subsequently published it through his series with G. Schirmer.  You can find it to order:  (HL.50490262)

ELEMENTS OF STYLE
(…E.W.Barnum not E.B.White)

From the door’s soft opening
And the day’s first sigh,
Filling the room,
I see before me
A life of doors,
One opening on another,
Doors upon doors,
And sighs upon sighs,
Rising in a tide of mornings,
Rising, until that final sigh,
And the last morning,
And the last holy breath,
Whispering “this…”

The instant I read the poem I thought Scandanavia.  Not sure why, and I usually don’t second guess my instincts.  So I attacked the poem with composers like Alfvén and Stenhammar as my guides.  I wanted to capture both the natural daylight breaking over the horizon, but also the existential idea a new day represents.  Though the existential element is more obvious in the text, I thought I could amplify it yet further by spending most of my time focusing on the light breaking forth idea.

I tried to do this in a couple of ways.  Immediately comes the obvious technique of starting with few voices and adding parts individually to create more and more color, culminating in the rich sonority of an F major chord (which I sometimes think of as the color blue).  The idea of light gradually coming is self-evident in the text “doors upon doors, sighs upon sighs”.  I choose to use this section of text as a spring board into the climax, not only with a repeating rising vocal line transferred from part to part, but also with harmonic tensions created from some unresolved suspensions.  All this resolves in a surprising minor climax, not major.  I think this gives the glory of each dawn a sense not of just joy, but also of mystery and longing.

The end of the piece essentially is an extension of an aleatoric technique I use from time to time.  In this particular piece the word “this” is repeated over and over again, overlapping in a cluster creating the imagery of a light.  Meanwhile a wavelike repeating figure is sung in the lower voices.  In total, one should get the feeling of light reflecting off the gentle waves of a body of water as the sun rises slowly above the horizon.

BETWEEN THE NOTES – MEANING

I haven’t seen too many sunrises, to be honest.  Sunsets have been easier for a night-owl.  Sunrises are glorious things though when you do the work to get up early enough.  It always seems to be worth it ….maybe I should do it more often.  Dawn brings with it possibility.  A newness.  A cleanliness.  The return of the sun has a fresh warmth too it as we shield our eyes from the bright light.

Robert focuses particularly on the aspect of renewal and the possibilities a novel day always presents.  All things are a mystery as you look ahead, but with the rising sun, a special feeling often fills your heart:  hope.  It seems like this poem is a perfect answer to the famous Thomas Hardy poem of hope: Song of Hope.

O sweet To-morrow! –
After to-day
There will away
This sense of sorrow.
Then let us borrow
Hope, for a gleaming
Soon will be streaming,
Dimmed by no gray –
No gray!

While the winds wing us
Sighs from The Gone,
Nearer to dawn
Minute-beats bring us;
When there will sing us
Larks of a glory
Waiting our story
Further anon –
Anon!

Doff the black token,
Don the red shoon,
Right and retune
Viol-strings broken;
Null the words spoken
In speeches of rueing,
The night cloud is hueing,
To-morrow shines soon –
Shines soon!

The piece Dawn is the tomorrow Hardy speaks about.  It is today!  Today is here and with it brings something new with its unpredictable prism of possibilities.  Dawn also hints that this gift will continue if you choose it.  Hope is born anew each morning.  Mercies are new every morning, if we look to the light.  And when the light rises, it shines light on blessings all around us.

We travelers, walking toward the sun, can’t see

Ahead, but looking back the very light

That blinded us shows us the way we came,

Along which blessing now appear, risen

As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,

By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward

That blessed light that yet to us is dark.

– Wendell Berry