A WINTER GATHERING
It is February 2009, a cold, relentless wind rattles doors and windows as it wraps itself round the old house that sits atop a Tuscan hillside. Surrounded by cypress trees standing against the wintry onslaught, the house has been my home and retreat for the last decade. In the summer, its elevation gives us some respite from the sizzling temperatures in nearby Florence, but in the winter we experience the implacable wind that descends from the North down the peninsula and across the exposed Tuscan hills.
Seven musicians, wrapped in scarves and coats, instruments resting on their knees, sit huddled around the kitchen fireplace, nursing hot mugs of tea, attempting to get some warmth into their fingers. Nearest to me is Kathryn Tickell, a traditional musician from my hometown Newcastle. Her Northumbrian Pipes, as well as her fiddle playing, have graced four of my albums since the early nineties. Next to her sits Julian Sutton, another traditional musician from Newcastle, who says very little, preferring instead to express his eloquence via the buttons of his beloved Melodeon. To my right is longterm colleague and guitarist Dominic Miller, my right and left hand for almost two decades. His presence, as well as his patience with my gadfly meanderings, is as comforting as his hands are steady. Mary Macmaster, Celtic harpist from Scotland, sits smiling in the glow of the firelight, patiently tuning the steel strings of her instrument between sips of tea.
I met cellist Vincent Segal last year while performing in Steve Nieve's opera 'Welcome to the Voice' at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris Vincent plays everything from plucked bossa nova rhythms to sonorous Bach preludes. The Chatelet is also where I met Ibrahim Maalouf, an exceptional Lebanese trumpet player. He is another quiet soul who sits absently staring at my dog Compass, lying by the corner of the fireplace: Compass returns his gaze with a look that is both watchful and insouciant. Finally there is violinist Daniel Hope, more at home perhaps in the great concert halls of the world than in a farmhouse kitchen, but nonetheless excited to be among this motley of musicians - and able to improvise in the informal way that most of us outside the classical world approach musical arrangements.
Each of us will explore the chosen pieces on his or her own, until the separate strands are woven together - a process which, I suppose, is my job: a task I'm happy to share on this occasion with Bob Sadin, New York producer, orchestral arranger and conductor. Bob stands with his back to the room, facing the window and observing the inclement weather, his flat cap clamped permanently onto the back of his head. "Shall we begin?" he says, still with his back to us. "We seem to have been gifted the appropriate weather." Ah yes! For we are gathered here to celebrate and explore the music of Winter, the season of frosts and long dark nights.
Bob hands out copies of 'The Cold Song' by Henry Purcell from the semi-opera King Arthur, with lyrics by John Dryden. The Cold Genius is summoned back from the dead, we start to play, and somewhere in the house a door slams.
The cold months of the northern hemisphere have been granted to us by the fortunate tilt of the Earth on its axis, and they exercise a powerful influence on our collective psychology. They are part of the myth of ourselves we carry inside our heads, created as much in the shared landscape of the imagination as in the concrete reality of our surroundings.
Like all earthly creatures we seem pre-wired to recognize and respond to the polar archetypes of light and dark, of heat and cold as they are encoded in the rhythm of the days and nights and the perpetual cycle of the seasons.
Today is exceptionally cold but the Winters of my childhood seemed to be far longer and far colder than they are now. Winter in this 21st century seems scarcely to begin before it is over, snowfall is rare, and when it does occur, it is short-lived.
Global warming, if that is what is reducing our annual cold season, is probably taking its toll on the human psyche just as it seems to be altering the seasonal rhythms of the planet itself Something important is in the process of being taken from us, for despite the frequent foulness of the weather, and the hardship of those who have to work outside, there is something of the Winter that is primal, mysterious and utterly irreplaceable, something both bleak and profoundly beautiful, something essential to this myth of ourselves, to the story of our humanity, as if we somehow need the darkness of the winter months to replenish our inner spirits as much as we need the light, energy and warmth of the Summer.
I remember well those long hours of darkness from November to March. We would walk to school in the dark, and find our way home in that same darkness. When we rose, there would be frost on the inside of windows, where you could scratch a face with your fingernail. We would get dressed for school under the sheets, and then, bundled up under layers of woollen clothes, we would walk ghostly streets in freezing fogs, ice treacherously underfoot, and we'd gaze in wonder at icicles hanging from railway bridges.
I remember the soft snowfall of so many dark winter mornings with my Dad on his milk round. We would often be the first to disturb it, as we drove silently through the empty streets, and the first to leave our footprints on pavements and garden paths, with the clank of the milk bottles in our hands muffled by the deadening and soundless snow. In whatever was left of the day, the sun was scarcely glimpsed, if at all: just a cold yellow disc rising above the naked treetops, or the whitened roofs of the town.
Sometimes on a winter's night I would contrive to be alone in the downstairs room of our draughty Victorian house. We kept a coal fire there, our only source of heat turning off the light, and sitting on the edge of the fender, I'd be drawn to the glowing coals and the flickering of the firelight, the room full of darting shadows. There I was free to imagine spirits and hauntings, for Winter, more than any other, was the season of the imagination, of transformed magical landscapes and the eerie silences of the snow.
Later that evening in Tuscany, the wind still howling outside, I will ask Kathryn if she knows any songs from Newcastle that would suit this project. She tells me that when she was a small child her Dad used to sing her a song called 'The Snow It Melts the Soonest'. I don't know it, but she and Julian will patiently teach it to me. The song, like the moors of Northumberland in the winter, has a characteristic bleakness and is starkly beautiful. As I sing it, I feel a rare twinge of homesickness.
THE CHRISTMAS STORY
Since the first millennium the festival of Christmas has become the central and defining event of the Winter season; the story of Christ's birth contains many magical elements, prefigured by ancient prophecy: the god king born among animals in a stable, the mysterious star in the East, the Three Wise Men, King Herod and the Slaughter of the Innocents, Mary and Joseph and the conundrum of the Virgin Birth. I appreciate the beauty of these stories and how they have inspired musicians and poets for many centuries. It was my desire to treat these themes with reverence and respect, and despite my personal agnosticism, the sacred symbolism of the church's art still exerts a powerful influence over me.
In the medieval lexicon the rose was a symbol of flawless perfection and became associated with both Christ and his mother Mary. Two songs in this collection have this as a central metaphor, both based on a verse from Isaiah ("And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots"): 'Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming', a 15th-century German carol, harmonized by Praetorius a century later, and 'There Is No Rose of Such Virtue', an English carol horn the same period. While the metaphor of the rose is clearly medieval, it appears to carry a faint echo of the nature spirits of the pre-Christian era. While this would undoubtedly have been an unconscious link, the syncretic nature of symbolism is both subtle and persistent.
In selecting the songs here, I was drawn to many of the beautiful lullabies horn both secular and religious traditions - indeed, all of the songs on the album are lullabies of a kind - and became intrigued by their dual nature, for lullabies seem to be designed not only to soothe but also to unsettle the listener. Peter Warlock composed his beautiful setting of the Scottish hymn 'Balulalow', a lullaby that is lyrically at the more comforting end of the spectrum; but the E flat pedal against the modal voicing of the arrangement is not entirely free of dark portents. Similarly, 'Lullaby for an Anxious Child', one of my own compositions with Dominic Miller, contains forebodings of a dark world beyond the cradle.
The imagery of 'Gabriel's Message', originally a Basque carol, is both beautiful and terrifying. Mary, who is - as usual - described as meek and gentle, is confronted by the vision of an awesome being with eyes of flame and wings of drifted snow. [...] The Mary and Joseph of the 'Cherry Tree Carol' are attractively human in the way they respond to their unusual predicament. On their flight into Egypt, Mary, now with child, asks her husband to gather cherries for her. With some anger, Joseph replies that the father of the baby should fetch her cherries, and not he. Such an honest emotional response is refreshing.
Implicit in the story of the birth of Christ is the knowledge of his death and his subsequent Resurrection. This is what connects it to the secular songs about the cycle of the seasons. We are reminded that there is light and life at the centre of the darkness that is Winter - or conversely that, no matter how comfortable we feel in the cradle, there is darkness and danger all around us.
The magical quality of the Christian story is not diminished by the knowledge that much of the myth of Christmas seems to have been superimposed upon an ancient matrix. If anything, those ancient echoes of the pagan solstice still reverberate in the stories of spirits and ghosts for which the season is famous.
Our ancestors celebrated the paradox of light at the heart of the darkness, and the consequent miracle of rebirth and the regeneration of the seasons. Ancient cultures not only observed these phenomena, but also took an active and imaginative role in their propagation. The winter solstice needed to be celebrated ritually so that a new cycle of the seasons could begin, crops could be sown, animals husbanded and life itself could proceed. It is this imaginative contract with nature that was at the heart of the winter rituals and at the heart of ancient myth.
For me it was important to draw parallels between the Christian story and the older traditions of the winter solstice. These myths and stories are our common cultural heritage, and as such need to be kept alive through reinterpretation within the context of contemporary thinking, even if that thinking is essentially agnostic. However, the mystery at the heart of the cosmos, and indeed of life itself, remains intact - perhaps insoluble to beings at our level of consciousness. In the meantime, all of us need our myths to live by.
Like many people, I have an ambivalent attitude towards the celebration of Christmas. For many, it is a period of intense loneliness and alienation. I specifically avoided the jolly, almost triumphalist, strain in many of the Christian carols. I make a musical reference to 'God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen' only as a dramatic counterpoint to the words in 'Soul Cake', for example. This was a song sung at Halloween by children who go from door to door asking for pennies and "soul cakes" (the latter not originally intended for the living). I was also keen to avoid the domestic cosiness of many of the secular songs, recognizing that, for many, Winter is a time of darkness and introspection.
Likewise, I was attracted to Robert Louis Stevenson's poem 'Christmas at Sea' because it describes so well the powerful gravitational pull of home that Christmas exerts on the traveller. When Mary Macmaster starred to sing the Gaelic song 'Thograinn Thograinn,' a women's working-song from the Isle of Skye, I thought the melody would make a perfect counterpoint for the longing of Stevenson's sailor, who finds himself on a foundering ship below the cliffside town where he was born, on this "of all days in the year... Blessed Christmas morn".
For those with even darker tastes 'The Burning Babe', a poem by the 16th-century English Jesuit martyr Robert Southwell, offers a macabre vision encountered on a winter's night, of the infant Jesus suspended in the darkness and burning in agony for the sins of man. The musical setting is the work of traditional singer and fiddler Chris Woods.
It would have seemed strange not to make reference at least to Schubert's great song cycle Winterreise, his masterly meditation on the season, and one of the inspirations for the present collection. I've taken some liberties with the English translation of 'Der Leiermann' in suggesting that the snarling dogs mentioned there may perhaps take a more active role in the demise of the hurdygurdy man. The observer in the song not only maintains a sense of curiosity and empathy towards the subject but perhaps envisions the spectre of his own future.
Finally comes 'You Only Cross My Mind in Winter', inspired by the Sarabande from J. S. Bach's Sixth Cello Suite; not surprisingly, it's a ghost story. My other contribution to the album is also a ghost story of a kind, 'The Hounds of Winter'.
Walking amid the snows of Winter, or sitting entranced in a darkened room gazing at the firelight, usually evokes in me a mood of reflection, a mood that can be at times philosophical, at others wildly irrational; I find myself haunted by memories. For Winter is the season of ghosts; and ghosts, if they can be said to reside anywhere, reside here in this season of frosts and in these long hours of darkness. We must treat with them calmly and civilly, before the snows melt, and the cycle of the seasons begins once more.