Jeff Hamburg composed Songs along the Way for mezzo-soprano, string trio, clarinet and harp in 2017. He used Lao Tzu’s texts from the Tao Te Ching, which date back to the 4th century BCE. These texts are full of contradictions, such as ‘what is perfectly full seems empty, but you cannot use it up’ or ‘the way is empty: in use, but not used up’. The music of Hamburg is spiritually related to this ancient Eastern mysticism and gives a continuous feeling of meditation.
In Gustav Mahler‘s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the protagonist makes, as it were, a rapid journey to adulthood; from heartbreak, passion and agony to reflection and resignation in his fate. Mahler wrote these songs when he was about 23-24 years old, in the very beginning of his composer career. In English, the cycle is commonly known as Songs of a Wayfarer, but more correct would be Songs of a traveling Journeyman. A Journeyman is someone who has completed an apprenticeship with a master in a trade or craft, but is not yet a master himself. As a young, newly qualified conductor and aspiring composer, Mahler was now in a phase between ‘apprentice’ and recognized ‘master’ and had moved from city to city, developing his skills and learning from masters in his field.
We can well imagine that the protagonist in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, who ends up under a blooming lime tree, might want to continue his journey on the path of Lao Tse.
A Prayer: Colomba Hamburg composed in 2013 for the 100th anniversary of the Peace Palace in The Hague. The work connects the musical world of five world religions: Russian Orthodox or Greek Chrurch; Sufi, Arabic chant representing the Muslim world; Hindu (processional march); Japanese Shintu and a Jewish Yiddish theme. Colomba here refers to the white dove of peace. The work’s single melody in its five forms symbolizes the way the world’s religions are connected in thought, regardless of cultural contexts. Hamburg also deliberately chooses to use the voice as an instrument and wrote syllabic texts in an imaginary language.
Sources: Emlyn Stam and Wikipedia
CD Review (Dutch) in ‘Klassieke Zaken:
CD Review (English) in Klassieke Zaken:
’Unity in cultural diversity: musically connecting five different cultural and religious experiences’ is the motto and goal of Jeff Hamburg’s A Prayer: Colomba (2015}. In this special composition, lasting almost 25 minutes, the voice accompanied by violin and cello symbolizes the human pursuit of harmony in this polarising time, with respect for one’s perception of the world. One will search in vain for the text because it does not ‘exist’. The American-Dutch composer was looking for a universal level of abstraction with pure sounds, which evoke associations with the languages of world religions. The result is as enigmatic as it is impressive.
It is preceded by the English-translated cycle Songs Along the Way (2017) based on paradoxical Chinese poems by Lao-Tse from about the fourth century BC. Helena van Heel’s voice is embedded in an open and transparent soundscape of three strings, clarinet and harp.
The philosophical motif of ‘being on the road’ finds its earthly counterpart in the four melancholy songs of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, arranged by Hamburg for chamber ensemble.
Everything about this wonderful CD is equally delicate: the music, the underlying idea, the instrumentation, the playing and above all the soulful and in all registers pure vocals of Helena van Heel.
May 2021 by Gerard Scheltens
CD Review in NIEUWE NOTEN:
In the coming weeks, mainly Dutch and Belgian composers will be discussed here, and therefore also the ensembles and musicians from our regions, because that goes together to a large extent. We start with Jeff Hamburg, although originally an American, but who has been in the Netherlands for so long, since 1978, that we can count him among the Dutch composers. The desire to study with Louis Andriessen once brought him here, something that applies to many and apparently he liked it.
The New European Ensemble, together with the mezzo-soprano Helena van Heel, recorded the song cycle Songs Along the Way for Etcetera Records and combined it with A Prayer: Colomba and Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in an arrangement by Hamburg.
For the six-part Songs Along the Way, Hamburg used the often somewhat enigmatic lyrics from Lao Tse’s ‘Tao Te Ching’. Very subdued, slowly gliding sounds, beautifully played by this fantastic ensemble, Hamburg combines here with equally subtle and subdued vocals. The choice for a mezzo-soprano is certainly no accident. The sound of Helena van Heel’s voice colors beautifully with this instrumentation and does justice to the mystical atmosphere that characterizes the lyrics of Lao Tse.
Hamburg wrote A Prayer: Colomba in 2013 for the centenary of the Peace Palace in The Hague. In accordance with the purpose of this building, Hamburg mixes various musical traditions here. For the first part he drew his inspiration from Greek and Russian Orthodox music, followed by that of Arab, Indian and Japanese culture. It’s admirable how Hamburg integrates all these different cultures into one fascinating whole, with the slowly gliding fragile sound world as a constant factor.
You can of course wonder what this arrangement of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen adds, why we would want this at all. On the other hand, I can well imagine that the New European Ensemble would like to have this piece in its repertoire. And Hamburg has certainly made a beautiful arrangement, magnificently performed by Helena van Heel together with this ensemble. Yet I would have preferred to see a third piece from Hamburg’s own oeuvre on this CD.
June 2021 by Ben Taffijn
Tao Te Ching – by Lao Tsu
I The Way
The way you can go is not the real way. The name you can say is not the real name.
Heaven and earth begin in the unnamed: name is the mother of the ten thousand things.
The unwanting soul sees what is hidden, the ever wanting soul sees what it wants.
Two things, one origin, dif’rent in name, whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries! The door to the hidden.
Return is how the Way moves. Weakness is how the Way works.
Heaven and Earth and the ten thousand things are born of being.
Being is born of nothing.
III Water and Stone
What is softest in the world rushes and runs over what is hardest in the world.
The immaterial enters the impenetrable.
So I know the good in not doing.
The wordless teaching, the profit in not doing – not many understand it.
IV Real power
What is perfectly whole seems flawed but you can use it forever.
What is perfectly full seems empty but you cannot use it up.
True straightness looks crooked. Great skill looks clumsy. Real eloquence seems to stammer.
In the cold, keep moving; In the heat, hold still; In the world, stay calm.
V Looking Far
Without going out the door, you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window you may see the way of heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.
The wise soul knows without going; sees without looking; does without doing.
The Way is empty: In use, but not used up.
Deep, the ancestor of all things.
It blunts its own sharpness, unties its own tangles, tempers its own brightness.
The Way is its own dust.
Deep but clear; existing, not existing.
From whence it came? There before all creation.