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*.

Dorothea Mackellar's My country

Final two verses of Dorothea Mackellar’s My country (Public Domain from the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia)

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!

12 thoughts on “Dorothea Mackellar, Elena Kats-Chernin and the Vienna Boys Choir

  1. I remember flying home from a holiday in New Zealand when I was 18, looking out the window as we came across the Victorian countryside the words “I love a sunburnt country” (it is country, not county isn’t it?) came into my head unbidden … after the emerald green of NZ I finally realised that the green I was used to was very much a brown/yellow green … a sunburnt green … and yes, I love it 🙂

    • Oh thanks cheeky … I didn’t realise my typo until your subtle comment there. It is now correct. I’m like you … something happens to my insides when I come back to Australia and the colour is a big part of that. Sunburnt green … I like it!

  2. Thanks for this link. What a treat hearing this must have been!

    I have loved hearing Elena Kats-Chernin’s compositions on Radio National as Late Night Live’s theme song ever since they retired Bach’s wonderful piece. (If Bach had to be replaced, I’m glad to was by such a talented composer.)

    • Yes, I do too, Elizabeth … it’s her Russian Rag I think isn’t it? The concert was a treat and went from 3 to 5pm with an interval. Great value and they worked hard.

      I love these connections between Literature and Music (both lyrics written FOR music, and music set to existing words).

  3. I love the association of a musical key with a mood. And hearing a child speak of B minor sensations is just beautiful. They must be a lucky and gifted bunch of boys!

    My grandmother used to recite the first lines of ‘My Country’ and I can hear her voice! She grew up in Mackellar’s spirit I’m sure.

    • Oh yes, Catherine, they were such boys and yet have such maturity as well. Somehow Mackellar manages to cut it without being too cliched (though that can depend a bit on the context can’t it). Kats-Chernin also commented on loving the line “opal-hearted country”. It is a lovely line.

  4. I enjoyed reading this post -the Vienna B.C. would be a rare treat I am sure and I can’t remember them visiting the UK although they undoubtedly must have done so. A fascinating video too.

    I apologise for my absence from the blogosphere for the last few months. I find I need acres of time if I am to participate fully and it seemed better to abstain completely ratherthan to just dip in from time to time! Glad to see your’s is developing so well.

    • Nice to hear from you even if just occasionally … even if WordPress had forgotten you and sent you into moderation, I hadn’t.

      Glad you liked the video … I love YouTube though it can be a real time waster if you let it!

      If the VBC have been here they will have been to you I’m sure. They are even visiting some regional cites here which is great.

    • It was, Stefanie … And I loved the fact that she worked with them. I can imagine what snip ring fun it probably was.

      Sorry about the fist version of this comment. WordPress notifications regularly freeze on the iPad … And I either end up losing what I’ve typed or having to submit a mess!

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