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Judith Weir

Publisher: Chester Music

We are shadows (1999)
Commissioned by the CBSO and the Southbank Centre
Work Notes
received the South Bank Show Award 2000
Text Writer
Emily Dickinson, Chuang Tzu (4thC BC)
Chester Music Ltd
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
24 Minutes
unison children’s choir + SSATB

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Programme Note
Judith Weir We are shadows (1999)
We are Shadows is a series of reflections on the impermanence of life. Although the text refers to death many times, I have tried to avoid the familiar mood and shape of the Christian Requiem; nevertheless, the opening poem (movement 1) with its metaphor of a graveyard described as a deserted inn, has a touch of the Dies Irae about it. Two further movements (2 and 5) take their texts from Scottish graveyard inscriptions; but these are sardonic and dry- eyed, rather than devout.

The bulk of the text (movement 3 and 4) comes from the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu (Zhuang-zi, in modern transliteration) who lived three centuries before Christ. Chuang Tzu takes a sceptical view of the division between life and death, and is ecstatic about the possibilities of life lived in other dimensions than the earthly one we know.

While composing the score, I kept in mind the example of Buddhist funeral music, which is often cheerful and lively. On completing the piece, one other influence seemed evident to me; that of J.S.Bach's cantatas, particularly in the movements for children's chorus (2 and 5), and in the final movement (6) where for the first time, all the performers are heard together.

We are shadows was written for the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Junior Youth Chorus and Symphony Orchestra. It was first performed by them, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, in Symphony Hall Birmingham on 15 March 2000, as part of the final 'Towards the Millennium' season.
© Judith Weir
London, 2011


1.Preface [ Emily Dickinson]
What Inn is this
Where for the night
Peculiar Traveller comes?
Who is the Landlord?
Where the maids?
Behold, what curious rooms!
No ruddy fires on the hearth-
No brimming Tankards flow-
Necromancer! Landlord!
Who are these below?

2.Inscription I [ Gravestone - Elgin, Scotland]
This world is a citie
Full of streets
Death Ye mercat
That a' men meets
If life were a thing
that monie could buy
The puir could not live
And ye rich wold not die

3. The Changer [ Chuang-Tzu]
Great are the works of the Changer
What will he make of you?
What will he use you for?
Perhaps a rat's liver;
perhaps a beetle's claw!

When we are children,
when our parents call us,
then we must go north and south,
east and west.
How much more,
when the Parents of Nature command us
we must go where they will.
They have asked me to die,
and if I do not obey them,
shall I cry out, as an unruly child?

How do you know
that hating to die
is not like thinking
you have lost your way
when you were on the path
that leads to home?

4.The Frontier Guardsman's Daughter [Chuang Tzu]
Li Chi was the daughter
of the Frontier Guardsman.
When first she was captured
and taken to China
she wept till her dress
was soaked with tears.
But when she came
to the King's Palace,
sat with him on his couch
and shared with him
the riches of the royal table,
she started to wonder
why she had wept.

How do I know?
Do the dead not wonder
why they ever should
have prayed for long life?

It is said that those
who dream of drinking wine
will weep when next day comes
and that those who dream of weeping
will next day go hunting.
But while a man is dreaming
he knows nothing but his dream,
nor can he know its meaning
until it is done.
Only when he wakes
does he know it was a dream.

Chang Chou dreamt
he was a butterfly.
He did not know he had been
anything but a butterfly
and was content to hover
from flower to flower.
Suddenly he woke
and with astonishment he found
that he was Chang Chou.
It was hard to be sure;
was he really Chou,
and had only dreamt
he was a butterfly ?
Or was he really
a butterfly,
and was only dreaming
that he was Chou?

5. Inscription II [Gravestone - Dundee,Scotland]
Man tak hed to me
Hov thov sal be
Quhan thov art dead.
Drei as a trei
Vermes sal eat ye,
They great boote
Sal be like lead.
Ye time hath bene
In my sooth grene

That I was clene
Of bodie as ze ar
Bot for my eyen
Nov tvo holes bene
Of me is sene
But benes bare
Ve pas from deithe to lyfe
From that ve vas
Ve hope again
Vith Christ to raigne

6 We are shadows [Inscription - Brick Lane Mosque, London]

[Notes on the text; Nos.2 and 5 come from the collections of Scottish Gravestones compiled and published by Betty Willsher and Doreen Hunter. They have been anglicised for the sung version. Nos. 3 and 4 are extracted from 'Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China' by Arthur Waley.The translations from Chuang Tzu are by Waley.]
© Judith Weir

Preview the score

  • 22 APR 2011
    The Sage, Gateshead, UK
    National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
    Vasily Petrenko, conductor

    Other Dates:
    24 April - Royal Festival Hall, London
  • 31 MAR 2006
    Eton College Chapel, Berkshire, UK
    Orchestra of the City / Rodolfus Choir
    Ralph Allwood and Benjamin Bayl, conductor
  • 21 MAY 2003
    Poole, UK
    Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Bournemouth Symphony Choir
    André de Ridder, conductor
  • 21 MAR 2001
    We are shadows US Premiere
    Minnesota Orchestra
    Vladimir Jurowski, conductor

    Other Dates:
    23,24 March - Minneapolis
  • 15 MAR 2000
    We are shadows World Premiere
    Torwards the Millenium
    Birmingham, UK
    City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, City of Birmingham Youth Chorus and Symphony Chorus
    Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

    Other Dates:
    20 March - London

..the remarkable ghost-cantata We Are is an epic choral work that encapsulates Weir's ability to harmonically approachable and bafflingly esoteric at the same time. The work had a macabre cast, with percussionists rattling chains and the string players drumming on the bodies of their instruments. Few composers could meld transcendental poetry, ancient Chinese philosophy and Scottish gravestone inscriptions into a coherent whole.
Alfred Hickling, The Guardian,27/04/2011
A series of reflections on the impermanence of life...Orchestral writing of characteristic bright focus and imagination.
Hilary Finch, The Times,27/04/2011
" But it is the concert opener, the American premiere of the choral song cycle "We Are Shadows", by British composer Judith weir, that steals the show. Only in her 40s, Weir bean to achieve acclaim in the 1980s in opera. This work, a meditation on death, confirms her position as one of the most important voices in contemporary music. Her juxtaposition of texts by Emily Dickinson and an ancient Buddhist poets with inscriptions from gravestones, in settings for mixed chorus and boys choir, betrays an opera composer's sense of the dramatic. Her style is decidedly tonal, often ferocious. She has her won unique voice and it is grounded in music's power to engage the emotions. The Minnesota Chorale and the Metropolitan Boys Choir are particular effective in putting across her meaning.
William Randall Beard, Pioneer Press,22/03/2001
"Weir's We are Shadows is a six-movement meditation on death which remains remarkably cheerful most of the time and is full of inventive and beguiling sounds. This is Weir in top form, imaginative, tuneful and witty."
Michael Kennedy, Sunday Telegraph,26/03/2000
"As salty Scottish monosyllables alternate with the oblique tale-telling of the Orient, so Weir's music works on what it knows best. Children's voices proclaim the graveyard wisdom ('If life were a thing That monie could buy The puir could not live And ye rich wold not die'). In a virtuoso fifth movement their words sturdily and fearlessly penetrate Weir's spectral orchestration: fingers drumming on the wood of cellos and basses like chattering teeth; key slaps and valve clicks from the woodwind like so many dry bones; the death-rattle of side-drum and bamboo chime."
Hiliary Finch, The Times,22/03/2000
"In this aurally ingenious score, full of dry-bone rattles and whispers, the sound of all the string players tapping their fingers rapidly on the wood of their instruments, swirling up through the orchestra like a chill wind through trees and echoed elsewhere by flurries of ascending scales, was an especially brilliant touch."
Fiona Maddocks, The Observer,19/03/2000
" …it [We are Shadows] is beautifully written. The orchestration is masterly, and always slightly surprising in the way it brings colours together - mostly strikingly liquid flutes and quietly growling tuba. The writing for the choir, and particularly for the children's voices was just as impressive…"
Stephen Johnson, The Guardian,17/03/2000
“We are Shadows [is] a most approachable rumination upon a decidedly oriental view of death. It makes points though strong tonalities, naturally-inflected verbal rhythms, and exotic sounds from the orchestra: colourful percussion, fingerboard-slapping strings and keypad-rattling winds.”
Christopher Morely, Birmingham Post,16/03/2000
"Described as a series of reflections on the impermanence of life, it is never maudlin and is frequently brimming with wit…The score is full of inventive touches, with some hauntingly lovely passages."
Paul Fulford, Evening Mail,16/03/2000
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