For What Can Be More Beautiful?

For What Can Be More Beautiful? was commissioned in 2012 by City Choir Dunedin – director, David Burchell, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the choir, and of the opening of the Dunedin Botanic Gardens. Funding was provided by Creative New Zealand and the generous support of an anonymous Dunedin donor.

The piece comprises two movements:

  1. Into The Garden – text adapted from The Song of Solomon
  2. The Joy Of Fruit – text by William Reid, Nurseryman

For What Can Be More Beautiful? received its premiere in March 2013 by City Choir Dunedin and members of the Dunedin Sinfonia under the baton of David Burchell. The performance met with an enthusiastic response from the capacity audience at Knox Presbyterian Church, Dunedin. The first movement received a second performance the following year.

Below you may find a recording of the premiere, together with programme notes and text for each movement and more details about the piece, including instrumentation.

For What Can Be More Beautiful?

1) Into The Garden

The images of landscapes, vineyards and gardens in The Song of Solomon are among the most evocative in all literature. The moment I first read that text I wanted to set it to music. In fact, I noted down the first seven notes of the theme on which this whole work is based more than three decades ago. So when David Burchell approached me about writing a song celebrating the sesquicentennial not only of a fine choir, but also of a wonderful garden, I knew the time was ripe!

Alongside those garden scenes, the aspect of the Song that made the strongest impression on me was its strange, dreamlike quality. We have the two lovers speaking to us, to each other and to friends. They switch back and forth between relaying their present feelings and their future intentions, and recalling past events in the story of their love. The same scenes and images keep circling back, each time with slightly different interpretations and outcomes. To me this leaves the feeling of being suspended in time and space, as in a dream.

So that is how I have structured Into The Garden. The opening passage, romantic and lyrical in style, portrays a spring vista: fragrant blossoming vines, fig trees setting fruit, and all of nature reawakening and singing; the lover waiting there. The closing passages recall this material: the lovers together enjoying the ripe fruit of an autumn garden, then waking from the dream. Between these structural pillars are a series of fleeting, disconnected scenes, some tantalising, some exciting, others quite nightmarish. In these passages the musical language mutates to mirror or enhance the images while always retaining the initial theme at its core.

Into The Garden

My lover spoke and said to me:
Arise my dearest and come with me! See, the winter is past, the rains are gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cry of the turtle-dove is heard in the land. The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread forth their fragrance. Arise, my dearest, and come with me! In the cleft of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountains, show me your face, let me hear your voice. For your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful.

Look, listen, behind the wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice. Now my love is knocking:
Open to me, my dove, my beautiful one. My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.
My lover thrusts a hand through the latch; my heart begins to pound. I arise to open for my lover, and my fingers drip with myrrh on the handle of the lock.

I opened for you, my beloved, but you were gone. My heart sank. I called you but you did not answer. All night long in my dreams I looked for you, but could not find you.
I will rise now and go about the city, through its streets and squares. I will search for the one I love.

The watchmen found me as they made their rounds. Have you seen my lover?
They beat me, they bruised me, they stripped me, those watchmen of the walls.
Have you seen my lover?

My love, if I find you I shall hold you and never let you go!

My lover has gone down to the garden to gather lilies. Awake north wind and come south wind. Blow on my garden that its fragrance will spread. Let my lover come into my garden, and taste its choice fruits.

My love you are like an apple tree in the forest. I love to sit in your shade and your fruit is sweet. Oh, strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples for I am faint with love.

You are an orchard of the finest fruit, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and all the finest spices. Kiss me my dearest, for your love is sweeter than any wine, and your fragrance more pleasing than any spice.

Your left arm beneath my head, your right arm embracing me. Oh, I am my lover’s, my lover is mine, who wanders among the lilies.

I have entered the garden, my beloved; I have gathered myrrh and spices. I have eaten honey from the comb, I have tasted every delicacy, I have drunk the nectar of the pomegranates, and milk. I have slept but my heart was awake.

Adapted from ‘The Song of Solomon’

2) The Joy Of Fruit

New Zealand poets have written outstanding garden-themed works over the years. For the text of the second movement I considered fine examples by Ruth Dallas, Lauris Edmond, Hone Tuwhare, Jocelyn Marshall, Allen Curnow and others. Individual settings were a possibility, but for some reason they did not work well side by side.

Becoming a little anxious as the deadline edged closer, I consulted the Hocken Library. Fortunately, just a couple of days later the Reference Team came up trumps. Not only was William Reid a Dunedin resident selling vegetable seed and fruit trees at the very same time that the Botanic Garden opened, but his views on the value of growing one’s own food were so much in line with my own and with modern thinking in general that I responded immediately to this text.

The theme which governs the structure and harmonies of this movement is in fact the Solomon theme back to front. This begins with two consecutive intervals of the perfect fifth – an interval instantly associated with a bagpipe drone! How perfect for a Dunedin piece!

However, as it happened the music had other ideas. It quickly became clear that what was emerging owed more to the influence of the vibrant Puerto Rican, Mexican and Dominican communities in the midst of which I now live than to my most fond recollections of a beautiful New Zealand city. I do hope that William Reid would not be too offended.

The Joy Of Fruit

The importance of tree culture cannot be too highly estimated, and more especially fruit trees. They not only beautify the home, but supply the table with a delicious and wholesome luxury, as well as an important economy in family expenses.

Delicate health rarely prevails to any great extent among families that possess an abundant supply of fruit. If the general public would only reflect upon this all-important question a great change would soon be observable in gardens that surround our homes.

If people would consent to plant suitable fruit trees the change would be eminently beneficial, without detracting one particle from the picturesque. For what can be more beautiful than a tree loaded with ripe, delicious, and wholesome fruit?

Aside from the foregoing consideration, there is another view of the question that merits serious attention. All are desirous of making money. And there is no more certain source of profit than carefully selected fruit. It costs but little in the matter of labour to produce it, and always finds a ready market.

It is almost impossible to imagine anything more cheerless than a farmhouse standing desolate and alone. It says as plain as words can speak: “The man that owns me has no forethought, no eye to the really beautiful”.

It is astonishing what a marvellous change is wrought by the planting of a few fruit trees. It would seem as if an enchanter had passed his wand over the scene. The effect is truly magical; the place that looked naked and barren will look cheerful and homelike. It is refreshing to the eye and has a pleasing effect on the mind.

Children reared in a house surrounded by fruit trees are not only more healthy, but are also more intelligent than those reared where there are no cheerful surroundings.

These remarks are given to the public with a view of calling attention to a few of the many benefits arising from the culture of fruit trees, and not merely as an advertisement for my own business.

The special attention of buyers of trees is directed to my stock, which comprises of the following: apples, pears, plums, cherries, peaches, apricots, nectarines, filbert nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, quinces, mulberries, chestnuts, almonds, gooseberries, currants and raspberries, of all the most suitable kinds for Otago.

From ‘A Few Words On Tree Planting’
by William Reid, Nurseryman and Seed Grower, Dunedin, 1876
(My thanks to the Hocken Library Reference Team for suggesting this text)

Mixed Voice (SATB) Choir
Chamber Orchestra consisting of:
1 Piccolo, 1 Flute, 1 Oboe, 1 Cor Anglais, 
1 Clarinet in Bb, 1 Bass Clarinet, 1 Bassoon
1 Horn in F, 1 Trumpet in C
1 Timpani (4 pedal)
3 Percussion: #1 (Marimba (5 8ves), Xylophone)
#2 Vibraphone, Glockenspiel, Maracas, Crash Cymbals, Triangle
#3  Suspended Cymbal, Triangle, Tamtam, Crash Cymbal, Bass Drum, Wind Chimes,
Ride Cymbal, Snare Drum, Maracas, 4 Tomtoms
1 Piano, 1 Organ (full or chamber)
2 Violins, 1 Viola, 1 Cello, 1 Double Bass

Duration – approximately 25’

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to see a perusal score or if you have any questions about the piece.