Snow Dance for the Dead composed by Seán Doherty is a piece that leaves an immediate and long-lasting impression on the listener and performer. The sheer power of the music provokes an emotional response, even without a deep understanding of the meaning of the work. Scratching beneath the surface of the score reveals a devastating backstory, a composer’s artistic mind at work, and makes one’s interaction with the piece even more compelling and impactful.
We asked Seán to share some insight into the origins of the piece and what inspired him to compose it.
A STONE’S THROW AWAY
In 2013 I was living in inner-city Dublin and searching for texts to set to music. I discovered that in 1873 a poet that I’d never heard of, Lola Ridge, was born just a stone’s throw away from my home. From Dublin she undertook an epic journey, travelling eastward around the world, eventually settling in New York where she became a radical in both politics and poetry.
Sadly Ridge’s life and work was almost forgotten until a revival of interest in her poetry came about in the early 2010s. I fell in love with her poems and set many for choir, including Under-Song, It’s Strange About Stars and The Destroyer.
I chose to use just nine words from Ridge’s poem: ‘Dance, little children, to the rhythm of the snow’.
Perhaps my most well-known composition to date is Snow Dance for the Dead. Inspired by Ridge’s poem of the same name, it explores the horrors of the Russian Revolution of 1917. I chose to use just nine words from Ridge’s poem: ‘Dance, little children, to the rhythm of the snow’. My goal was to tell the rest of the story through music and gesture.
In the poem Ridge describes children dancing in the snow and cupping their ‘hands like tiny chalices’ to catch the snow as it falls. This is an extraordinary image. In Catholic tradition the chalice is used to hold the wine that, during the Mass, turns into blood. With extreme brevity, Ridge is conveying the transformation of snow to water to wine to blood. This small gesture contains the story of the descent from innocence into violence and bloodshed.
The Cheka were the secret police of the Bolsheviks that were established during the Russian Revolution. They were the first in a succession of Soviet state police forces that ultimately led to the infamous KGB. At the direction of Vladimir Lenin, the Cheka performed mass arrests, imprisonments, torture, and executions without trial. Furthermore, I learned that they were so hardened to murder that instead of using the word ‘kill’, they would say ‘Natsokal’ to replicate the sound of a pistol being cocked and fired. I found this chilling and so decided to feature this onomatopoeic word in the composition, along with the gesture of a hand imitating a pistol.
At the start of the piece, the choir aim their “pistols” at the conductor. Subsequently they cock the pistols, but don’t fire, stopping short of using the full word (Natso-). This is a reference to the rule in theatre of Chekhov’s gun: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired”. I wanted to use this, setting up the expectation that, sooner or later, the pistols will fire.
DANCE, LITTLE CHILDREN
The choir lower their pistols as they sing a tender snow dance. The vocal parts layer over each other like “many kisses falling altogether”, as described in the poem. The snow dance draws to a close when the choir members begin to raise their pistols and shoot for the first time (-Kal).
Now we notice the chalice motif for the first time in an upwards vocal glissando on the word ‘Snow’. The singers cup their hands and raise them above their heads, as if a chalice at the point of transubstantiation. At the top of the glissando the chalice is shot out of the hands of the singer. Their arms fall to their sides. The glissandi then combine across all vocal parts to make one seamless ascent from the bottom of bass range through to the top of the soprano. Once this is completed chaos ensues. Soldiers shoot indiscriminately at the dancing children. Suddenly, we understand who really holds the power and who has been orchestrating the violence: the conductor. In revenge, the singers take aim at the conductor, who tries to flee. As one, they execute their former leader.
For many years I have been a member of the choir New Dublin Voices, conducted by Bernie Sherlock. I was honoured that we gave the world premiere of Snow Dance for the Dead at the prestigious World Choral Symposium in Barcelona in the centenary year of the Russian Revolution. An uproarious applause broke the stunned silence at the end. It was followed by Immortal Bach by Knut Nystedt, a consoling balm to the violence of Snow Dance.
Later that year, we performed Snow Dance in Latvia at the International Baltic Sea Choral Competition. This was particularly poignant, as the locals amongst the audience would have suffered greatly from the political aftershocks of the Russian revolution.
In the years since, the piece has been performed by choirs in Africa, America, Asia and Europe. Each of these groups has brought their own historical memory and present-day experience to their interpretation. I know that a choir in the United States have performed Snow Dance to highlight the horror of widespread mass shootings in schools, whereas a choir in South Africa carried the knowledge of the sectarian violence of Apartheid.
It has been and continues to be an honour to see the passion that choirs bring to this work. I hope it serves as a cry for peace from within crossfire.
Seán Doherty is an award-winning composer from Ireland whose captivating compositions are fast becoming a favourite of choirs worldwide. His music has a deep connection to the text, often with strong moral and social themes.
Seán’s choral works have been performed by choirs including the Stellenbosch University Choir, the National Youth Choir of Scotland; the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; New Dublin Voices and the World Youth Choir.