Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Natural History is a setting, for soprano and large orchestra, of four brief texts taken from Chuang-tzu, a classic collection of Taoist writings from the 4th, 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. The oldest of these writings are known as The Inner Chapters, ascribed to Chuang-Tzu himself; and it is from this section of the work that all the texts of Natural History have been selected.
My interest in Chinese philosophical literature began in my teens, and was directly inspired by my enthusiasm for the writings of John Cage, in which ancient Chinese ideas are frequently connected to musical models. The texts of Natural History (which I have considerably compressed, from the translation by A C Graham) are typical of the qualities I most enjoy amongst this literature; concision, clarity, lightness and (hidden) wisdom. All four texts are short parables about natural life as lived by different species, human and animal; a Taoist Carnival of the Animals, in fact.
I am well aware that my own interpretations of these ancient wisdoms may be idiosyncratic, and spring from an avowedly Western sensibility. But nevertheless, these are ideas with which, in my own way, I have long been familiar; and I have for some time considered Taoism to be the most helpful of established philosophies in the conduct of modern life.
In choosing texts for Natural History, I aimed to find words which would allow both clear storytelling and opulent singing; in fact several of the songs might be said to approximate to the pattern of 'recitative and aria'. The relatively large orchestra (triple woodwind, full brass but with no trombones, harp, percussion and strings) provides, in effect, the naturalistic scenery for these stories.
1. Horse. The text discriminates between the natural behaviour of wild horses and the unfortunate consequences of training them. An analogy with the behaviour of people is unspoken but implied. The music underlines this idea with an elegaic opening for an ensemble of three solo celli; followed by exacting rhythmic patterning in the 'trained' section.
2. Singer. This is the story of a singer who lived (as many musicians do) in the most straitened, poverty-stricken circumstances; but he possessed a magnificent voice, and was therefore, in Taoist reality, richer and greater than anyone else. A contrast is made between the careful spare orchestration of the opening and the huge orchestral fanfares punctuating the singer's 'aria'.
3. Swimmer. At the opening of the song, a man is glimpsed swimming, and perhaps drowning, in the throes of a massive and rocky orchestral chasm. But in mid-song, he climbs out of the waters and sings to his interlocutor (who happens to be Confucius) a jaunty melody (in 7/8 rhythm) in which he explains his simple mastery of the waves.
4. Fish/Bird. A giant creature of incredible dimensions, which appears as both fish and bird, is described in a passage which seems to me to describe our uncomprehending perceptions of the infinite. The orchestral accompaniment, dominated by high instruments, reminds me of the vapour trails of aircraft, stretched out over a blue sky.
Natural History was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was written for the voice of Dawn Upshaw. The first performance was given by these artists, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, on 14 January 1999, in Symphony Hall, Boston. The duration of the piece is approximately seventeen minutes.
Programme note © 1999 Judith Weir
Extracts from Chuang Tzu (4th C BCE)
THE INNER CHAPTERS
The horse has hooves to tread the frost and snow, a coat to chase away wind and cold. It champs the grass and drinks the stream, it lifts the knee and prances. Such is the nature of the horse; it needs no lofty halls, and no palaces.
There came a man who said, "My talent is ordering horses."
He clipped them , he shaved them, he singed them, branded them, tied them with bridle and rein; and in stable and stall, he starved them, he parched them, made them trot, made them gallop, in formation, neck to neck, tormented by bit and reins in front, by whip and goad behind, and the horses that thrived on it were two or three out of ten.
Is it the nature of wood to long for the carpenter's plane ? Does clay yearn for the touch of the potter's hand ? This is the error of order.
When Tzeng Tzu lived, his gown was torn, his face was blotched, his hands were hard. He lit no fires, he had no coat, his elbows showed through torn-up cloth, his shoes were burst and down at heel; but when he sang the Hymns of Shang !...
....The Son of the Heavens could not touch him; the Lord of the States could not make him his friend; the sound filled sky and earth, as if from bells and chimes of stone:
"Forget body, forget profit", he sang. "To find perfection, forget the calculations of the heart".
There was a rock where water fell, and foamed for forty miles; it was a place where fish and turtles could not swim, but in the waves, Confucius saw a man. He took him for someone in trouble who wanted to die; but the swimmer rose out of the water and climbed on the bank with a song on his lips:
"I was born in dry land, I grew up in the waves, I go out with the flow, I follow the Way of the water. That is how I stay afloat."
In the Northern Ocean, there is a fish, its name is the K'un; it is a fish a thousand miles broad, no-one knows how long. It changes into a bird, its wings are like clouds that hang from the sky. It leaves a wake in the water, three thousand miles; it rides in the wind, nine thousand miles high; it is gone six months before it is out of breath.
All below looks the same as above; the haze of the heat, the dust storms, the sky at its back and a clear view ahead.
Is it true that the sky is azure ? Or is it the infinite distance ? Is it true ?
- Spotlight on Judith Weir including orchestral works, opera and a world premiere
- 22nd February 2022
- A series of performances taking place in London over the coming weeks shines a spotlight on the rich and varied output of composer Judith Weir