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Judith Weir

Publisher: Chester Music

Natural History (1998)
Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Text Writer
Chuang Tzu (4thC BCE)
Chester Music Ltd
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
17 Minutes
Alternate Orchestration
soprano; piano
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Programme Note
Judith Weir Natural History (1998)
Natural History is a setting, for soprano and large orchestra, of four brief texts taken from Chuang-tzu, a classic collection of Taoist writings from the 4th, 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. The oldest of these writings are known as The Inner Chapters, ascribed to Chuang-Tzu himself; and it is from this section of the work that all the texts of Natural History have been selected.

My interest in Chinese philosophical literature began in my teens, and was directly inspired by my enthusiasm for the writings of John Cage, in which ancient Chinese ideas are frequently connected to musical models. The texts of Natural History (which I have considerably compressed, from the translation by A.C.Graham) are typical of the qualities I most enjoy amongst this literature; concision, clarity, lightness and (hidden) wisdom. All four texts are short parables about natural life as lived by different species, human and animal ; a Taoist Carnival of the Animals ,in fact.

I am well aware that my own interpretations of these ancient wisdoms may be idiosyncratic, and spring from an avowedly Western sensibility. But nevertheless, these are ideas with which, in my own way, I have long been familiar; and I have for some time considered Taoism to be the most helpful of established philosophies in the conduct of modern life.
In choosing texts for Natural History, I aimed to find words which would allow both clear storytelling and opulent singing; in fact several of the songs might be said to approximate to the pattern of 'recitative and aria'. The relatively large orchestra (triple woodwind, full brass but with no trombones, harp, percussion and strings) provides, in effect, the naturalistic scenery for these stories.

1.Horse. The text discriminates between the natural behaviour of wild horses and the unfortunate consequences of training them. An analogy with the behaviour of people is unspoken but implied. The music underlines this idea with an elegaic opening for an ensemble of three solo celli; followed by exacting rhythmic patterning in the 'trained' section.

2. Singer. This is the story of a singer who lived (as many musicians do) in the most straitened, poverty-stricken circumstances; but he possessed a magnificent voice, and was therefore, in Taoist reality, richer and greater than anyone else. A contrast is made between the careful spare orchestration of the opening and the huge orchestral fanfares punctuating the singer's 'aria'.

3.Swimmer. At the opening of the song, a man is glimpsed swimming, and perhaps drowning, in the throes of a massive and rocky orchestral chasm. But in mid-song, he climbs out of the waters and sings to his interlocutor (who happens to be Confucius) a jaunty melody (in 7/8 rhythm) in which he explains his simple mastery of the waves.

4.Fish/Bird. A giant creature of incredible dimensions, which appears as both fish and bird, is described in a passage which seems to me to describe our uncomprehending perceptions of the infinite. The orchestral accompaniment, dominated by high instruments, reminds me of the vapour trails of aircraft, stretched out over a blue sky.

Natural History was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was written for the voice of Dawn Upshaw. The first performance was given by these artists, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, on 14 January 1999, in Symphony Hall, Boston. The duration of the piece is approximately seventeen minutes.

Extracts from Chuang Tzu (4thC BCE)

The horse has hooves to tread the frost and snow, a coat to chase away wind and cold. It champs the grass and drinks the stream, it lifts the knee and prances. Such is the nature of the horse; it needs no lofty halls, and no palaces.
There came a man who said, "My talent is ordering horses."
He clipped them , he shaved them, he singed them, branded them, tied them with bridle and rein; and in stable and stall, he starved them, he parched them, made them trot, made them gallop, in formation, neck to neck, tormented by bit and reins in front, by whip and goad behind, and the horses that thrived on it were two or three out of ten.
Is it the nature of wood to long for the carpenter's plane ? Does clay yearn for the touch of the potter's hand ? This is the error of order.

When Tzeng Tzu lived, his gown was torn, his face was blotched, his hands were hard. He lit no fires, he had no coat, his elbows showed through torn-up cloth, his shoes were burst and down at heel; but when he sang the Hymns of Shang !...
....The Son of the Heavens could not touch him; the Lord of the States could not make him his friend; the sound filled sky and earth, as if from bells and chimes of stone:
"Forget body, forget profit", he sang. "To find perfection, forget the calculations of the heart".

There was a rock where water fell, and foamed for forty miles; it was a place where fish and turtles could not swim, but in the waves, Confucius saw a man. He took him for someone in trouble who wanted to die; but the swimmer rose out of the water and climbed on the bank with a song on his lips:
"I was born in dry land, I grew up in the waves, I go out with the flow, I follow the Way of the water. That is how I stay afloat."

In the Northern Ocean, there is a fish, its name is the K'un; it is a fish a thousand miles broad, no-one knows how long. It changes into a bird, its wings are like clouds that hang from the sky. It leaves a wake in the water, three thousand miles; it rides in the wind, nine thousand miles high; it is gone six months before it is out of breath.
All below looks the same as above; the haze of the heat, the dust storms, the sky at its back and a clear view ahead.
Is it true that the sky is azure ? Or is it the infinite distance ? Is it true ?
© Judith Weir

Preview the score

  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Chorus / BBC Symphony Orchestra
    Ailish Tynan, soprano
    Martyn Brabbins
  • 03 APR 2020
    New Paths Music
    Toll Gavel United Church / Beverley / UK
    Aoife Miskelly, soprano / Libby Burgrss, piano

What is the magic of Judith Weir? What is there about her music that makes it unmistakably her own? That’s an elusive subject that has been discussed for years. It was the talk of the City Hall again on Thursday when the BBC SSO, with Finnish soprano Anu Komsi and new associate guest conductor Stefan Solyom, gave the Scottish premiere of Weir’s Natural History, a beguiling set of four pieces inspired by Taoist texts. The Scottish-born composer’s secret might be beyond definition, but it permeated her beautiful, four-stage composition, which could have been written by no other composer. Her music is not remotely minimalist, but has always – and uniquely – been able to evoke, with a single brush stroke, a musical landscape, scenario, or state of mind. Though the rapturous, stellar singing of Komsi was the primary captivating element in the music, the real character in the piece lay in the gorgeous, spare orchestration, whose originality of colouring lay at the heart of the appeal in this irresistible set of ‘parables’, as the composer has called them.
Michael Tumelty, The Herald,29/05/2006
"Judith Weir's song cycle Natural History, like a number of her earlier works, is inspired by Chinese writings. A self-proclaimed Taoist Carnival of the Animals, Weir's settings of ancient texts on horses, birds, fish and men furnish a witty and imaginative sequence of musical images. She is one of the very few composers who can use elements of tonality and thereby refresh it. While the musical language is always highly approachable, it manages to intrigue in its subtleties, especially in this work by her veiled use of orientalism, which are absorbed into her own manner, not thrown in as purely exotic colour."
Matthew Rye, The Daily Telegraph,04/09/1999
European Premiere 31 August 1999, Royal Albert Hall, London, BBC Proms Dawn Upshaw and BBC Philharmonic conducted by Mark Elder " Weir's Natural History is "Taoist Carnival of Animals", four settings of short Confucian parables that make their points gently and undogmatically. It makes no attempt to evoke chinoiserie in the music. These are deft, serious songs, beautifully judged and sparingly scored. Every gesture, every nuance counts
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,03/09/1999
"Judith Weir's Natural History again affirms that among young composers today, few are as gifted as she is. Her music breathes coolly, calmly and intelligently with a clarity of tonal language that positively invites you in. … Upshaw has a delightfully light floating sound perfectly suited to these exquisitely simple but wise tales. The impact says much for Weir's delicate scoring, a feast for the ear which although employing a full orchestra and substantial percussion, always leaves adequate space for the voice."
Annette Moreau, The Independent,03/09/1999
first performance 14 January 1999, Boston Dawn Upshaw and Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle World Premiere "Natural History is the title of the wondrous new piece Judith Weir has composed for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. … Weir's song cycle for soprano and orchestra is based on four passages from Taoist classic Chang-Tzu; each of the songs is a simple narrative with repercussions that echo out to infinity. Both dimensions of the texts are represented in the music, which Weir characterizes as "recitative" (for narrative) and "aria" (for feeling and implication). The music is almost as unpretentious as folk song, at least as sophisticated and far-reaching. The orchestration is elaborate but spare, precise and full of vivid, storytelling detail (the third song, Swimmer, uses the horns in something like Sibelius' Thorn's hammer theme to depict the swimmer breasting the waves).The vocal line is expressive, meaningful, and completely without ostentation. … The audience responded to Weir's music with exceptional enthusiasm, bringing the composer to the center of the stage twice, right where she belonged."
Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe,15/01/1999
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