A Matter of Spirit

November 10, 2018

November, 2018 | Ottawa, ON

Laura Hawley, Hypatia’s Voice Women’s Choir, Parkdale United Church Orchestra
Photo Credit: Peter Farris-Manning

In 2018, choirs across Canada launched productions for the centenary of Armistice Day, musically marking 100 years since the end of the First World War. In anticipation of this landmark, I had dreamed of a new large-scale work for women’s choir and orchestra that would speak to women’s experiences of the Great War.

Formalizing this vision with Hypatia’s Voice Women’s Choir, we collaborated with the Parkdale United Church Orchestra and their Artistic Director, Angus Armstrong, and with the support of a City of Ottawa Project Grant, commission one of Canada’s most celebrated composers, Christine Donkin.

A matter of spirit is Donkin’s brilliant new 10-movement work for women’s choir and symphony orchestra. One of the primary goals of this project is to shed light on Canadian women’s experiences of war, representing Canadian women of different ages, viewpoints, and backgrounds.

It uses texts written by three Canadians: Edith Monture, the first Indigenous woman to become a registered nurse in Canada, was a Mohawk First World War veteran who kept a diary during the war. Nellie McClung was an English Canadian who travelled through western Canada recording stories for her book The Next of Kin, and French Canadian Québécoise, Blanche Bessette was a “marraine de guerre” (war godmother) who wrote heartfelt letters to a Belgian soldier.

I sat down with Christine to discuss the work and her process and ideas behind bringing this project to life.

Laura Hawley, Christine Donkin
Photo Credit: Peter Farris-Manning

L: Christine, back in 2015, you attended Hypatia’s inaugural concert, at which we performed your beautiful work for women’s choir and piano, “The Dawn is not Distant.” I spoke with you after the concert and remember you saying “I’d love to write for your choir.” As a great admirer of your work, I resolved that we would pursue this some day. Do you remember this conversation? How did the sound of Hypatia inspire you or influence your writing?

C: I absolutely do remember this conversation, as well as the concert that preceded it! It was truly an inspiring event – a fact that can be attributed not only to the quality of the singing, but also the choice of repertoire and the way in which you decided to present the pieces. You did pieces by Holst, Tavener, O’Regan, and Chilcott and I remember listening as Hypatia performed The Dawn is Not Distant from the balcony above the audience’s heads, in dimmed light – that was such a special experience. I was able to draw on that memory as I started working on this project, and I think it was a really important factor in how the piece ultimately came together.

L: Where were you when you wrote this piece? What stands out in your memory about the experience of composing it?

C: I was in Ottawa when I started it. It was really a two-part procedure: first I had to choose and organize the text and then I had to apply music to it. Since the words are of such huge importance in this piece, I took my time going through a lot of text and choosing exactly what I felt was needed (in truth, I had to leave out a lot that I would have liked to include, otherwise the piece would have gone on for hours). Organizing text for a project like this is actually one of my favourite things to do – although I’m not a writer myself, I do love words, and find great satisfaction in assembling sometimes disparate pieces of text into a single entity from which I can draw all of my ideas for a musical work. That process went on for several months I think, squeezed in between other projects and commitments. I soon focused on two significant text sources that you had tracked down – Edith’s diary and an article containing several of Nellie’s poems. After a lot of deliberation, I selected four entries in Edith’s diary, and then, as you know, I explored some more of Nellie’s output and realized that her prose was a better fit for this project than her poetry. I ended up choosing three paragraphs from The Next of Kin.

I also put just a few musical themes in place during that early part of the process. Then things got very busy and I had to put the project aside. By the time I returned to it, I was in Victoria BC (where I am still, because of my mother’s health). At that point I was facing a looming deadline – rehearsals on the piece were to begin – and I had to finalize my text choices and pull together the bulk of the musical content in the space of about three weeks.

L: Let’s go back to your decision to set Nellie’s prose. You mentioned early in the process when we were discussing text for the work that you often prefer to set prose rather than poetry. Why is that?

C: I should specify that when I said “poetry” I meant “poetry with meter and a rhyme scheme”, which is the kind of poetry that Nellie was writing. Setting that kind of poetry is a very different experience than setting free verse, or than setting prose, because metered poetry already has a kind of musical aspect to it. Sometimes this is fine, but often in the past when I’ve set metered poetry, I’ve opted to suppress both the meter and the rhyme scheme in order to give myself more artistic freedom. Often, I can treat well-written prose in a poetic way. Sometimes I even write it out to “look like” poetry – this is what I did with Nellie’s text as I was figuring out how to set it.

L: Bessette, McClung, and Monture come from different cultural backgrounds (French, English, and Mohawk, respectively) and had three very different experiences of and relationships with the war. How did you approach setting these different voices to music? Does each voice have its own musical features?

C: Initially it seemed a scary task – setting the text of three women who were so different from each other, and so different from me. It seemed to me that I was going to be heading in a totally different musical direction with each writer’s work.

I read the texts over many, many times, until I started to feel a familiarity with them, and gain some kind of understanding of these three women as individuals: what motivated them, and how their experiences changed them.

I can hear distinct musical characteristics in the settings of each woman’s text, and I think this comes quite naturally out of the words that they wrote, which in turn comes out of their own personalities. At the same time, there is a kind of unifying element throughout this work which is difficult to pinpoint. Perhaps that unifying element is my own voice, my own response to the text, which inevitably comes through in the music.

L: Here is a question from Rebecca, soprano, Hypatia’s voice: The texts of many of the movements are heart wrenching and the music does such an amazing job of bringing out that emotion. Can you talk a bit about what it was like composing with such emotionally charged lyrics?

C: This is really a central issue, and it relates to the “unifying element” that I was just talking about. I think it’s inevitable that a composer’s own reaction to the meaning of the text gets inextricably woven into the musical work. This means that no matter how much musical and technical skill a composer has, the final product will only be as valuable as his/her interpretation and understanding of the words. So for me, there’s no way of keeping any emotional distance from the text – you have to dive into it, and definitely, diving into some of the text in this project resulted in days of walking around feeling like the world was going to end. And even at that, I know that my emotional reaction only scratched the surface.

L: Which texts generated musical ideas most immediately for you? Were there texts that took longer to set?

C: In general, Blanche’s texts, particularly Mon cher filleul and Je voudrais être cette modeste épingle, generated musical ideas almost immediately – the reason for this might be that of the three women, I identified most strongly with Blanche on a personal level. There were also other moments that emerged without a lot of coaxing, such as the beginnings of There was a mist in the air this morning (Nellie); Left Ellis Island at 8 AM (Edith); and Maybe I could pretend that you are my boy (Nellie).

The two most difficult ones were Hospital filled to the doors (Edith) and You see that schoolhouse (Nellie), the first because there was so little text, and the second because there was so much. In Hospital I wasn’t at all sure how to stretch Edith’s very brief but incredibly intense diary entry into a piece of music. It is such a tiny amount of text, but every word explodes with meaning. In Schoolhouse, on the other hand, there is a lot of text, and all of it is indispensable. I didn’t want the music to interfere and distract listeners from the message that the text puts across, so I opted to have it spoken over very subtle orchestral accompaniment.

L: Throughout the piece, I find I experience many different musical scenes that for me evoke colours, pictures, weather, and all kinds of emotions. What kind of imagery came to mind as you were writing and can you describe some of the compositional techniques you’ve used to evoke certain things?

C: The work overall begins with text that was written in January 1918 and progresses into the summer, so there is a sense of the changing of seasons as well as the evolution of the circumstances of the war. We begin with a kind of restless determination, felt by Edith and the others (soldiers and nurses) who felt compelled to enlist and depart for Europe amid cold weather and falling snow. This I depicted with a quick-moving arpeggiando section in the violins against staccatos in the woodwinds and other strings. I also wanted to capture the atmosphere of anticipation, almost excitement, on the morning of her departure from North America, which I did with an upward, questioning motive in the woodwinds that recurs several times throughout the piece. I contrasted these textural explorations with the very warm, rich, gentle harmonies and tone colours in the settings of Blanche’s first two excerpts.

Even as Edith’s journey across the Atlantic is underway, the piece begins to move through some difficult emotions. Some of the most moving are near the end of the piece: a woman, described by Nellie, arrives at a train station as new recruits are getting ready to depart. She has already lost a son in the war, and her response to this trauma is to find another (as she says to the young man at the station who has no parents, “maybe I can pretend that you are my boy; you see I have no boy – now”). My setting starts with the singers delivering this text in unison, but later in the piece the choir splits into six parts and we hear the same forlorn melody in canon. This is, after all, not the story of one woman who lost a son in the war – thousands of people suffered this same loss.

L: I’ve long admired your writing for orchestra and for choir, and I love the way you have paired Symphony Orchestra with women’s choir. Can you describe your approach to the orchestration and to the role of each ensemble?

C: Naturally part of the choir’s role in this piece is to deliver the text. One of the orchestra’s roles is to pick up on the themes that originated in the text and expand on them – a similar effect to a video camera panning out to show viewers the bigger picture after focusing on something specific. Orchestras, with their vast palette of tone colours, are so adept at augmenting the emotional impact of things, and that is what the orchestra ends up doing for a lot of this piece. The orchestral passages also give some time for the audience to reflect on the text that the choir has delivered.

I dearly love composing both choral music and orchestral music, and in this project I was determined not to let either group dominate. The difficulty with treating them both as equal partners is that in sonic terms, they are not equal – a large orchestra can make a lot of sound, and I had to be careful to score the piece in a way that didn’t cause the orchestra to overpower the choir. Of course, at this moment, I still don’t know for sure whether I succeeded! I hope I did.

L: During the writing process, you had mentioned to me on the phone that the writing was flowing well, and the creative process was working quickly (which is not always the case). Can you describe this? Do you know why that was the case with this project?

C: As a composer, there are some projects that require me to do some mental traveling in order to figure out what’s being asked of me, while others I “get” right away – this project was in the latter category. It seemed to be such a good idea and one to which I felt I had something to contribute. In addition to this, I hadn’t composed any music for a few months before I started this project – I had been too busy with other things. One does need to take a break from composing now and then, but I think that by the time I started on this piece, I’d recuperated sufficiently from the previous ones and was ready to get to work.

Things seemed to be going well at the time that we had that phone conversation, although after that, I must confess that not all the ideas came quickly. In particular, two of Edith’s texts (Hospital filled to the doors and My pet patient Earl King) took a lot of preparation – that preparation amounted to lots of reading the words and pondering them and thinking “I don’t know what to do”…and then one day thinking “now I know what to do”. It was as if a locked door whose key I had been seeking for a long time suddenly swung open on its own. I’m sure that anyone who engages in creative processes knows what I mean. Often things fall into place without our knowing how. But I do know that the door won’t open if I don’t look for the key; nor at this stage in my life do I have any expectation that I can control when the door will open.

L: Heading toward the premiere, what is your vision for how you as the composer can best collaborate with the ensembles and conductors to best bring your work to life and authentically represent your compositional voice? What recommendations would you make to other groups working with a composer on a new commission?

C: Honestly, the whole journey to this point has been very positive and constructive, from the initial exchanges of ideas through to preparing the final scores. I needed some help at various points, especially with finding text since that was a major undertaking, and I’m so grateful for your input, and for that of members of both the choir and the orchestra who came to my assistance. Now that rehearsals are underway, I’m anxious to know how things are going. Angus recently sent me recordings from an orchestral rehearsal, and I know that he’ll be sending a few more in the coming weeks. So things are definitely going in a healthy direction from my standpoint as composer. I’m really happy that everyone involved is so committed to the project and so ready to communicate ideas and ask questions and voice concerns. I think these open lines of communication, at all stages of preparation, are crucial to a successful premiere.