What's the “twist” in “Across the Vast, Eternal Sky”?
We sang a wonderful selection by the composer of this piece. Ola Gjeilo, at our May 2014 “Guys and Dolls” concert. I wasn't too sure how that one (“Serenity,” set to the Latin text “O Magnum Mysterium”) fit our theme then, and I'm not too sure about how this piece fits our current theme of dance music. But hey, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” And Gjeilo's music is so hauntingly beautiful that, really, we'll take him on any terms.
The lyrics to this piece come from the contemporary poet Charles A. Silvestri, who “specializes in providing bespoke poetry for choral composers.” Rather like a custom tailor, I guess. He has written the lyrics for a number of Gjeilo pieces, and says of this one that “The fiery sky at sunset was an inspiration for this poem about a phoenix preparing for rebirth.. . . Ola had asked me for several poems relating to the theme of rebirth, and I gave him this twist on the usual theme.”
So what's the twist? A secondary one might be that Silvestri has built his poem around the myth of the phoenix and has the bird itself speaking. I think we're all vaguely aware that a phoenix is a creature who dies, usually in flames, and then rises anew from its own ashes. There's quite a variation in the stories of this ever-renewing bird, with the word “phoenix” itself being found in ancient Greek and even, perhaps, in ancient Egyptian, although there is some fuzziness about the latter. We do know for sure that the phoenix is always associated with the sun, and indeed the supposed references to it in Egypt are in the city of Heliopolis, where the sun god Ra (or Helios) ruled. It's not quite clear to me what this “association” consists of except in the flame motif, and even (I'm speculating a bit here, as is not unusual) in the fact that the sun can be said to die every evening and then to be reborn each morning. Many other cultures have had similar tales of the reborn bird; the firebird appears in the Russian version of the story.
Enough historical background. Let's take a look at the actual lyrics of the piece. The phoenix's feathers are now gray where once they were red and gold (the most common colors used in descriptions), and it knows that soon it will be “born again in flame.” But—and here's the major twist—it is not going to die on some sort of funeral pyre as is usually the case. Instead, it is going to plunge into the sun itself. This meaning is borne out by the first verses of the original poem, words that Gjeilo did not include in his composition:
Weary, I fly,
Across the vast eternal sky,
High in the heavens,
Where awaits my destiny.
Grey skies are thickening;
Soon now my time will come,
Time to return home
'Cross the vast eternal sky.
The ending of our piece and of the poem reinforce this meaning:
Do not despair that I am gone away;
I will appear again
When the sunset paints
Flames across the vast eternal sky!
(All text copyright Charles A. Silvestri)
I don't want to make the mistake of trying to pin down the meaning too strictly here; otherwise I may end up sounding like something from a Hallmark card. I'll just say that in Silvestri's hands the myth has become something less literal and more universal, without the physical bird actually rising from the fire. He will instead be translated, as it were, into another, much larger medium. Take that idea and apply it as you please!
Okay. That was the sublime part. Now on to the silliness:
Bonus teaser of the week: What is the greatest music video ever made using an ABBA song? (Or perhaps the great music video ever made, period.)
Now, don't get me wrong: I'm tickled pink that we're singing ABBA's “Dancing Queen.” It's a great song. I just don't think I need to do much explication of the text, however, and doubt that I could find anything on how or why it was written, its relation to the personal lives of Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny (Benny?) and Anni-Frid, or any other esoteric material.
Instead, I will pass on something I discovered while doing my usual stint of bopping around on YouTube to see what videos are available for our selections. I spotted something called “ABBA Goes to the Dogs!", watched it, and haven't stopped smiling since. It's not our selection, but maybe we can keep it in mind for a future concert. Please, please, please watch it, even if you don't think you like ABBA's music. (Hey, Brian thinks it's right up there with Brahms!) You will have a serious earworm for days afterwards, but it'll be worth it.