In early 2019, the idea of a musical piece was born that would portray the agony surrounding our planet’s fate: the all-too-clear, alarming and rapidly advancing climate changes.
Together with the librettist Kerstin Perski, Karin Rehnqvist began to chisel out the contours of what would become the great symphonic work for choir and orchestra – Silent Earth.
The ideas took shape in a joint commission by the Dutch Radio Choir (Groot Omroepkoor), the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (Radio Philharmonisch Orkest), and the Swedish Radio Choir / Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.
The corona pandemic intervened and postponed the planned performances. Not until January 2022 was the world premiere in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, and in August 2022 the Swedish premiere at the Baltic Sea Festival in Berwaldhallen, Stockholm.
The three-movement work Silent Earth for mixed choir and symphony orchestra was a dizzying experience for the listeners. With the drama of the composition and the sharp content of the lyrics, Silent Earth became something that gripped the audience (as well as the participating choir singers and orchestral musicians) and touched many deeply.
The reviewers write
Newspapers in Sweden write about the choir and orchestra in Silent Earth.
Is it possible to present the climate crisis as a question of humanity’s destiny by means of a choir and symphony orchestra? No, but it can be powerful and thought-provoking piece of music and poem. In places with this oratory, especially in the portrayal of man’s destruction of his only planet.
With weak, dry sounds, Rehnqvist opens his mourning play about a muted earth. A stubborn motif with single notes quivering in drills suggests that diversity has become silliness. The chorus complains homophonous in narrow intervals. There is no room for flourishing virtuosity here. Rehnqvist paints the final downfall with broad brushes and thick timbre. But it ends, like T S Eliot, not with a bang but with a whimper.
– Camilla Lundberg in Dagens Nyheter
If any Swedish composer could write a powerful musical manifesto for the environment, it is Karin Rehnqvist. The breakthrough more than thirty years ago with “Puksånger – Lockrop” opened up as much for a completely unique tonal language as for the feminist voice.
Two years late, the Swedish premiere of “Silent Earth” for choir and orchestra, a joint commission between the Dutch public service company NTR and the Swedish Radio Symphony, now came during the Baltic Sea Festival. The very choice to exclude vocal soloists in order to let the orchestra and choir be the components means that the negative side of the representative is more easily avoided: with three shorter poems by Kerstin Perski – Rehnqvist’s librettist in two operas – a community is created that the listener can join. We are mourning together a world that is being destroyed.
Rehnqvist’s musical impulses have been taken up by others and she herself has been receptive. The establishment of monotony, developed into neighbouring steps, once bore the stamp of idiosyncrasy but has been absorbed by others into minimalist strategies. It is not until the later parts of the work that the primal force that once broke the uniformity is found, but then seismic movements arise. Unfortunately, Perski’s texts are not printed in the text booklet, because it is difficult to distinguish the English text in the Radio choir’s voices – still a communicative conveyance of the feeling of the earth being ravaged.
– Erik Wallrup in Svenska Dagbladet
“Silent earth” begins in a softly roaring atmosphere of gong and cymbals, where small scratching and glittering gestures make their mark. Soon a woodwind signal appears that sighs and drills on a semitone step, the archetype of melancholy and a central building block of the piece. A coordinated brass chord à la Mahler with its rhythm foreshadows the choir’s effort in a desolate landscape: “Lonely earth / silent earth / seasons passing / winds howling / lakes glittering / emptied / fishless”. To this text, the music becomes a reflection of the gloomy state of the Baltic Sea around which the festival revolves.
In the second movement, the choir gives voice to the human collective mourning the devastating earth to fragments of a lamento bass (a descending bass line historically used to accompany lament). Kerstin Perski’s eco-poetry is straight to the point, without subtexts or surprises: “We are the ones who ignored your pains, let you suffer from our greed”. The suggestive power lies instead with the music, and Rehnqvist manages it well.
– Axel Englund in Expressen
Here the people sing to the earth, after which a natural disaster in forte occurs. The work is both dramatic and romantic as if during the disaster we must not forget what once was. The text may be a bit environmentally and politically correct, but musically it is both evocative and exciting.
– Claes Wahlin in Aftonbladet
Concert photos: Gunilla Landström