Dorothea Mackellar, Elena Kats-Chernin and the Vienna Boys Choir
I’m guessing most of you have heard of the Vienna Boys Choir, but you may not, particularly if you’re not Australian, have heard of Dorothea Mackellar and Elena Kats-Chernin. Mackellar (1885-1968) was an Australian writer, best known for her poem “My country”. Kats-Chernin (b. 1957) is an Australian composer who was born in Tashkent (in what was then the Soviet Union). She has been in Australia since 1975.
You’ve probably guessed now what this post is about. It’s about Elena Kats-Chernin setting Dorothea McKellar’s “My country” to music for the Vienna Boys Choir to perform (on their 2012 tour to Australia). According to the program, producer Andrew McKinnon, who commissioned the piece, wanted a poem that would both resonate with Australian audiences and “promote the beauty of Australia to international audiences on the choir’s future travels”.
And yet, as I sat down to the Choir’s concert on the weekend and looked at the 25 mostly European-born boys ranging in age from 9 to 14, I wondered what they could make of such a poem. For those of you who don’t know the poem, its most famous verse, the second, goes like this:
I love a sunburnt country
A land of sweeping plains
Of ragged mountain ranges
Of drought and flooding rains
I love her far horizons
I love her jewel-sea
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me
The program answered my question. After Kats-Chernin had drafted her composition, she went to Austria to workshop it with the boys. What fun that must have been. Kats-Chernin says that while that poem with that choir might seem an odd combination, it also makes sense:
The piece is about a country that’s still really young, but at the same time has been around thousands of years. At the same time they [Vienna Boys Choir] are only young boys, but the tradition they are part of is really old*.
And so Kats-Chernin workshopped her ideas with the boys. Here is an excerpt from one of the choristers, Anton (12 yo), as reported in the program:
She read us some of Dorothea Mackellar’s poem. She said Australia is beautiful, and very dangerous. Which key did we think meant danger? Felix suggested B minor, David thought of F sharp. Immediately Ms Kats-Chernin started playing the right chords.
She gave each of us a word to sing, on a sequence of notes, floods, famine, sunburnt country. We were all doing it at the same time, and it was sounding like a fabric of music. That was a total surprise to me, and I could feel myself smiling. It just happened. I think some of this is in the finished piece.
It was a beautiful piece – not schmaltzy or cliched as it so easily could have been. She broke up the words at times, repeated some, left others out (if I remember correctly), all of which gave the poem new power for those of us who know it well. I like Kats-Chernin. She’s able to express a modern sensibility in her music (different or unusual rhythms and harmonic combinations, using my layperson’s language) while retaining lovely melody as well. (Hmm … that statement may imply more about modern music than I really intend, but you know what I mean!). The piece is called “Land of Sweeping Plains” but its most powerful, memorable section focuses on the first line of the 4th and 5th verses, “Core of my heart, my country”. “Core of my heart” was apparently the poem’s first published title. I like that … from “Core of my heart” to “My country” to “Land of Sweeping Plains”. It’s clever – or sensible, at least, I think – to give the piece a more descriptive, less nationalistic/patriotic title, if it is going to become an internationally performed piece. And I hope it does become so.
Meanwhile, if you are interested, you might like to check out this You Tube about Kats-Chernin and the Choir.
* Historians date the choir from 1498!