Music Monday: Williams: The Five Sacred Trees

We've come to that rarest of rare things: A living composer that almost everyone has actually heard of! It's May the Fourth, and to celebrate, today we're featuring a work by John Williams, the man who wrote the music for the Star Wars movies. The most fitting thing, I suppose, would be to feature some selections from those scores, but one of the purposes of these posts is to help get the word out about music that you might not have heard, and honestly Star Wars doesn't need my help to boost its popularity. (If you are one of today's lucky 10,000 and haven't seen Star Wars yet, I highly recommend getting one of your friends to show you Episode IV at least. Even outside of the quality of the film itself, there are so many references to it in popular culture that will suddenly make a lot more sense. It's iconic.)

Instead of Star Wars or Harry Potter or Close Encounters of the Third Kind or any of his other numerous rightly famous film scores, today we're going with one of John Williams's forays into concert music: The Five Sacred Trees, a concerto for bassoon and orchestra written for Judith LeClair and the New York Philharmonic in 1993* for the orchestra's 150th anniversary season. I first stumbled on this work almost by accident while browsing CDs in the Tanglewood store many summers ago — I saw that Williams, whose work I was rather obsessed with at the time, had written something for my instrument and knew that I had to have it.

Listening as soon as I got home, I was not disappointed. Judith LeClair is an artist of the highest calibre, and this piece is a gem. I was enraptured, and subsequently sought out a copy of the sheet music online. It was well beyond my ability at the time (parts of it still are), but it was my first real exposure to contemporary solo repertoire, and its influence runs deep. I mean this both in terms of bassoonery and composition: I aspire to one day produce a tone that comes even close to being as rich as LeClair's, and looking back at it now, I can see roots of an unsettling number of my go-to compositional gestures.

(Like they do with his film scores, there are some people who look down their noses at this piece because it isn't "serious enough" or something. I know that my position on the Mozart concerto** might call my taste on this matter into question, but seriously, y'all, chill. Just because some parts of it would fit seamlessly into a Harry Potter film doesn't mean that other parts aren't beautiful, heartbreaking, and profound. And besides, what's wrong with fun? This is the bassoon we're talking about. Embrace the irreverence. Your life will be so much better if you do, I promise!)

I was also rather taken with the mythological underpinnings of the piece, but here I was rather stymied. As suggested by the title, the work draws its inspiration from Celtic prayers said before felling specific trees, each with particular symbolic or magical associations, but beyond that the details get a bit sketchy. Reading the liner notes, one gets the impression that the movements refer to five specific trees that were conceived of as a set, much like the nine Greek Muses or the seven Christian deadly sins, but in poking around for further information, I haven't been able to find anything that supports this view — certainly there's a lot of information about pre-Christian religious practices involving trees in the British Isles, but little to explain why Williams would choose to musicalize these five trees as opposed to numerous others. The notes make a passing reference to the work of Robert Graves, but his name alone is not exactly enough to pin down a precise bibliographic reference. So its connections to its source material are . . . perhaps somewhat tenuous, and the associations I'm going to be talking about below should only be taken as indicating Williams's compositional intent; they probably don't reflect the actual religious practices in question with a great deal of accuracy or nuance.

A stern, declamatory line for the solo bassoon launches the first movement, Eó Mugna, the oak. Evoking the guardian of the well of all knowledge, this is music rooted in strength but shot thru with protective tenderness. After some time, the orchestra sneaks in, a moment that is absolutely tragic in the piano part — the delicate, luminous scoring of the original just can't stand up to being so timbrally flattened. The bassoon and orchestra build in tandem before the orchestra takes over to burst forth in a resounding climax, a climax that in turn gives way to another bassoon cadenza. A few dregs remain before the movement fades into a tranquil silence. Tortan, a tree associated with witches and their magic is next, and is unquestionably the most indebted to the world of soundtracks. A wily scherzo with a devilish part for the solo fiddle, the movement opens out in the central section to renewed lyricism, but after an imitative duet with the flute, the fiddling returns and sees the movement thru to its joking, pell-mell end.

Moving firmly back into the realm of the contemplative, Eó Rossa, the yew, unfolds almost entirely as a duet for bassoon and harp. Embracing the yew's symbolism of death and rebirth, this movement is searing and mournful, but not without hope. There is profound loss here, but also hard-won acceptance and peace. Craeb Uisnig, the ash, shatters this mood with a ghostly battle. Built from fragments and rife with otherworldly shudderings, this movement imagines a phantasmal struggle in the woods, where all we observers can hear is the passing snapping of twigs.

Starting without pause after the fourth movement's destruction, Dathi takes some time to find itself. The tree of the poets, it opens with a jumble of winds and a cloud of lost strings before the bassoon re-enters in an attempt to bring some semblance of order to the scene. After extensive rhapsodizing, it finds its way to a supple, flowing theme that brings a renewed blossom of warmth and certainty. Delicately intertwined with the flute, this melody gradually dissolves into a resonant orchestral texture that brightens with added brass and percussion in one last tutti affirmation. From there, there is a long unwinding as dusk falls gently and sound ebbs inevitably into silence, an eternal mystery only vaguely glimpsed.

*Wikipedia gives the date as 1995, but it doesn't cite a source for that, and the published sheet music gives a copyright date of 1993, which is actually in the 1992-3 150th season. Copyright notices are not infallible, but I'm going to side with them in this instance.

**It's a boring and affected piece of music and we probably wouldn't play it as much as we do if it didn't have Mozart's name plastered all over it. THERE, I SAID IT, FIGHT ME.