Dean: Winter Songs

Program Note

Brett Dean (b.1961)
Winter Songs (2000)

It was the sheer fascination of an expat Australian with the unfamiliar extremes of a Berlin winter that inspired me to write my Winter Songs. They date back to 1994, when I was first approached by the Philharmonic Wind Quintet, however were not fully realised until 2000. I chose five poems by E.E. Cummings that all revolve around images of winter (and, being from his last, posthumously published collection of poems, perhaps confronting the "winter" of his own life, as in the innocent childhood memories of Poem 52 for example), and grouped them into three movements with a lengthy instrumental introduction. Here much of the main material is introduced and explored.

The first two poems (No.s 16 & 17) are good examples of Cummings’ highly inventive typographical style, where words are dissolved into constituent parts, often split up across several lines into single letters, giving the words at times unexpected neologisms and new associations. The singer is given space to roam in this literary "geography" of sounds. In Poem 16 for example, Cummings presents the word "suburban" with the segments "s", "ub", "sub", "urba" and "n", offering the tenor the chance to gradually present the word. These two poems portray the unflattering sides of winter in the city, all grime and sludge. Fast, knotty passages of notes in the setting of Poem 17 add to the cluttered, messy feel of the words, with all its "filthy slush".

The central movement is a setting of the more conventionally structured Poem 36, in which Cummings, already in 1962, sends us a searing warning on the dangers of ecological destruction.

The final two movements are free of the negative connotations of winter. There is much less dark and cold, much more a sense of timelessness and openness, more Finland than NYC. In fact, it reminded me of one particularly "golden" November in Berlin, namely in 1989. During the days of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we enjoyed beautiful sunny days with a special clarity of light, combined with a brisk, icy freshness as everyone celebrated at the Brandenburg Gate. I’d never spent so many hours outside during a November before. Winter, with its many extremes, heralds a new beginning and offers intense emotional connections.

—Brett Dean