NÄR KORPEN VITNAR / WHEN THE RAVEN BLACK TURNS WHITE

When the Raven Black turns White is a piece with four movements and three interludes for female folksinger and twelve musicians.
THE FIRST, suggestive movement makes use of words from magic spells and incantations.

Where the raven pales

where the swan goes black

where grey stones float –

entice me

(freely from traditional Swedish spells and incantations)
THE SECOND movement is a lesson in curing a downhearted cow. The Virgin Mary, mild mother, is walking in the green fields, when she meets her gentle son.

– What art thou seeking my beloved mother?
– I am seeking my humble bumblebee*, since my cow is so milkhearted, downhearted, liverhearted, lunghearted hearthearted, bloodhearted, bellyhearted and faring poorly.

They agree, after consultation, to put some salt and malt in the mouth of the cow. That should bring her back to health!
The music becomes more humoristic. The folksinger plays both the parts of the Virgin Mary and of Jesus. She portrays the latter singing in a “boyish, pubescent voice”.
THE THIRD movement is a song of praise, a psalm;
Praised art Thou thanks to whom/We wake each day with joy
These words are sung in a sorrowful tone, tentatively, and then there is a transition to
Terror pierces my heart/ I tremble, full of angst
THE FINAL movement portrays a nightmare.
I had a bad dream/ I stood before the sea/ Suddenly the sun burned up
Birds screeching in the sky/ the beating of their wings warning us of/ Bad times to come.

 

My point of departure here was the “witch trials” held everywhere in Europe, from south to north, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. People, usually women, were groundlessly sentenced to burning at the stake for sorcery, witchcraft and having dealings with Satan. The trials took a particularly grotesque form in Northern Europe, where even children were used as both informers and witnesses, often tempted by offers of food.

(In fact, the poem in the second movement about the downhearted cow, comes from the records of a trial held in the church at Torsåkers, in northeastern Sweden. I spent twenty of my summers in that area, beginning in 1980. Two hundred years earlier, seventy-one people were “tried” there, sixty-five women (every fifth woman in the parish) and four boys. All of them were executed and burned at the stake in July 1675.

In creating this piece, I have imagined what it was like to be a woman in those days, what the world around her reflected, how close she was to nature, how she believed in all kinds of creatures, in the omnipresence of the magical and the mystical, the church (with the clergymen often being the driving forces of the witch trials), the powerful, the humorous. The women who were accused were often the most able ones, whose cows probably gave more milk than those of others in the community, the women who were able to cure illness, good at identifying medicinal herbs, and so on.

Not until I had finished composing the piece did I find out that the nightmare text in the final movement was written by a contemporary Roma author, Rosa Taikon. This coincidental fact made the connection between incitement and persecution (witch trials) of individuals and peoples in our time painfully distinct and direct.

 

When the Raven Black turns White was composed for the folksinger Ulrika Bodén and
– Nordic Chamber Ensemble, (Sundsvall, Sweden)
– BIT 20 – Ensemble (Bergen, Norway) and
– OrchestrUtopica (Lisbon, Portugal)
Karin Rehnqvist 12 November 2007
English translation by Linda Schenck


Texts

1.
When the Raven Black turns White
when the raven pales
when the swan goes black
when grey stones float
entice me –
When the Raven Black turns White
where the swan goes black
where grey stones float –

(freely from trad. Swedish spells and incantations)

2.
Recitative for a downhearted cow
The Virgin Mary walked out into the green field
she met her blessed son so sweet
What art thou seeking my beloved mother?
I am seeking my humble bee*, since my cow is so
milkhearted, downhearted, liverhearted, lunghearted
hearthearted, bloodhearted, bellyhearted
and faring poorly.
Jesus and Mary considered
We both wish to cure
We’ll take malt and salt
Put them both in her mouth
She’ll be cured all at once.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

(Traditional Swedish spell for curing of downhearted creatures, quoted in the court transcription from Torsåker in Sweden)

* The bumblebee was traditionally considered to be associated with milk and milking.

Musicians:
– I chop and I chop and I chop
– I bind you, I bind you, I bind you
– I stanch you, I stanch you, I burn you

(freely from trad. Swedish spells and incantations)

3.
Praised art Thou
Praised art Thou thanks to whom
We wake each day with joy
The new day buds, bursts into bloom
And fades, like the one before
Oh may we grasp these flashes
Each moment that’s in store.
Oh may we pay clear notice
To what God does expect
Of us and do our utmost
His spirit to respect.
Each day to rise in prayer
And not lament our fate
But see our way to days where
Accepting, we await.

(J-O Wallin, from the Swedish Hymnal)
Terror pierces my heart
I tremble, full of angst

4.
I had a bad dream
I had a bad dream – ay ay
I stood before the sea
Suddenly the sun burned up
Birds screeching in the sky
The beating of their wings warning us of
Bad times to come.

(Rosa Taikon)

 

I see the raven –
I see the swan –
English translations by Linda Schenck