Heaven is Shy of Earth

Julian Anderson (1967)

Heaven is Shy of Earth 2006 - - perc(4) - hp - pno(=cel) - keyboard (see note on score) - strings
Text Author 

Heaven is Shy of Earth was commissioned by the BBC Proms. This work sets texts in Latin and English from a variety of sources: parts of the High Mass in Latin, an extract from Psalm 84 in Latin, and a poem of Emily Dickinson. Despite the predominance of Latin religious texts, this is not a sacred work. It is not a Mass setting, but uses its range of texts (including part of the mass) to celebrate the beauties of the natural world. In this sense it is in the tradition of such ‘secular’ masses as Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass or Martinu’s Field Mass. Or as John Cage remarked of his Roaratorio, “it’s not in the church, it’s out there in the world… or rather the world has become a church.” The idea of nature as sacrosanct is put slightly differently by Emily Dickinson in the poem set in tonight’s work: Blue is blue – the world through – Amber – amber, dew – dew Seek, friend, and see – Heaven is shy of Earth… I was much struck by the force and elation of the final line. To say that the beauties of the earth are such that heaven would be ashamed of itself by comparison may strike some as rash (understandably, when one thinks of the average days’ news). But, then again, perhaps that is the point: the strong instinct for celebration is one way of transcending the chaos. Each movement of the work has somewhat different scoring and texture, following the needs of the texts. The orchestration features the usual orchestral line-up, although the first trumpet often plays flugelhorn (as in the opening movement) and the orchestra is similarly various. Through both of these bodies the mezzo-soprano provides her own melodic, generally lyrical commentary, also having a movement entirely to herself (the setting of Psalm 84). Two features run through much of the work: first, when the vocal writing is clear and simple, the orchestral writing is often more complex, and vice-versa: in other words, the voice and instruments complement each other (although there are exceptions to this). The other factor is a small group of instruments in the orchestra – a flute, a clarinet, a trumpet, an electronic keyboard – which are tuned down a quarter-tone. They provide a special harmonic colour at certain points, using non-tempered intervals derived from the natural overtone series – another way, perhaps, of bringing nature into the concert hall. Rather than provide a movement-by-movement commentary, perhaps it would be best to emphasise the interrelationships of the texts. Emily Dickinson’s ‘heaven is shy of earth’ has its parallel in the psalmists’ “the sparrow hath found her a nest, where she may lay her young – even thine altars, O Lord” – another way of indicating nature as sacred. And the setting of the title line is immediately followed by the word ‘Sanctus’ repeated many times, which makes the same point. This piece was composed with tonight’s performers in mind, and I am most grateful to Angelika Kirchschlager, Sir Andrew Davis, Stephen Jackson and the combined forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra for their collaboration on the work. Heaven is Shy of Earth is dedicated to Ian and Laetitia Frost.

Julian Anderson

06.08.06 BBC Proms, London: Angelika Kirchschlager/BBC Symphony Chorus/BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
26.11.10 Barbican Hall, London: Susan Bickley/BBC Symphony Chorus/BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen
III & IV = picc, III= fl. detuned 1/4 tone
III = Ecl & cl in A detuned ¼-tone, IV=bcl
I=flugelhorn, III=tpt detuned ¼-tone
I:tubular bells. II: vibraphone, bongos (2 pairs very high, high, medium, low), large chinese cymbal, v large bamboo chimes III: glockenspiel, 2 triangle very small, small, 2 high woodblocks, sleigh bells (medium), large tam-tam IV: marimba, crotales, large bass drum
I=cel, II= keyboard (see note on score)