I was fortunate enough to find this piece amidst my YouTube feed some lazy late-March midday. I’ve heard the beginning of this piece many times, but never gave it any thought. This time, however, I let it play and was shocked by the choral introduction (no idea this was a choral work). Having a soft spot for choral music, especially English choral music, I peeked at the score. Intrigued, I let it play for longer - and before I knew it, 40-odd minutes passed with me completely immersed in the story. Maybe it was the weeks I haven’t been outside for, but this work was stunning.
We follow a passing cloud who is asked to bring a message from a banished yaksha (a nature spirit) to his wife Alakā in the holy city midst the Himālayas. The libretto is Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta translated from Sanskrit by Host himself. Beautifully, Holst expresses the themes of love, joy, life, loneliness and longing heartache through his music. With obvious Wagnerian influences, the lush late-Romantic orchestration, soaring melodies and ravishing harmonies pulls the listener straight into the world of Kālidāsa to be amongst the vast temples, quaint villages and the Great God Himself.
Premiered in 1913, The Cloud Messenger (Op. 30) is absolutely worth listening. Unfortunately, there exists little to no recordings. As of the time of this writing, only the London Symphony Orchestra and King’s College have made recordings of it. Neither is perfect - and they both have their strengths and weaknesses. Throughout the next few parts, we’ll explore the various thematic, harmonic and cultural aspects of this opus. And lastly, I’m no musicologist or theorist; I’m just having fun here. If you see mistakes, send me an email or something!
I highly recommend you to wear headphones.
The piece opens with a lone arching bassoon line in E minor. We can think of the opening theme (Th.P1) as being made of 3 separate motifs. An opening fifth makes the motif P.1a, a descending figure P.1b and the response to 1b, P.1c. Think of P.1b as 2 ascending dotted quarter figures (see blue highlights) as this motif will return later.
Three sections of this theme represent the longing for love, loneliness and finally, acceptance.
The flutes introduce motif P.1d in response to Th.P1, which then returns in the low strings as the winds punctuate a descending chromatic countersubject.
Great! Now let’s give it a listen
[00:00.00] Bassoon introduces Th.P1 [00:08.29] Motif P.1b (call) - listen for the two dotted quarters [00:15.81] Motif P.1c (response); notice the dotted quarter response [00:23.00] Flute and oboe introduces P.1d (development of the motif) [00:40.00] Low strings repeat the first theme [00:43.00] Woodwinds answer [00:45.38] And so on...
Beautiful isn’t it? Interestingly, this structure is quite similar to the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, whose influences can be seen throughout Holst’s works.
Holst now introduces a shy Th.P2, symbolizing life and joy, to contrast the opening theme, about longing and love. This theme is comprised of an undulating up-down motif (2a) and an upwards shooting motif (2b) by the flutes. Notice how P.2b is reminiscent of P.1b’s dotted quarter motif. Perhaps joy to be felt from sorrow?
Slowly, Holst plays with the two themes before building to a spectacular climax for the choral Introduction. The first theme returns in the trumpets (relative major too) and is juxtaposed against the second theme in the flutes.
[00:00.00] Oboe finishes Theme 1 [00:04.54] Theme 2 (Rehearsal mark 5) [00:09:54] Flutes play the second motif [00:11.83] (Building tension) [00:18.91] Trumpets sneak in, a really beautiful transition here. [00:42.73] "O thou, who coms't from heaven's king!"
From these two themes, springs the musical content for the entire work. The overall structure of the Prelude is roughly binary AB.
This section begins with the words:
of a noble race, who wearest wondrous forms
at will, O glorious cloud, I welcome thee.
Sung in a descending G major scale. This is the first theme (Th.I1), not much development here. However, the following Poco Animato section introduces the second theme (Th.I2), which is quite interesting.
Notice how it’s derived from fragments of the Prelude’s “loneliness” motif (P.1b). Holst develops this theme while the choir sings about the joys of marital love with some nice chromatic mediant modulations. After the narrator pines about missing his love (a short tenor soli), the choir returns with a beautiful development of Th.I2:
A stretto is when a subject presented in quick succession (layered and offset). Let’s give it a listen. Listen for the amazing modulation on the words “th’eternal snows.”
[00:00.00] Bringer of rain to the thirsty land, [00:06.16] bringer of joy unto those in sorrow, [00:13.31] thou goest to the city that lies 'mid th'eternal snows [00:19.77] of the Himālayas, [00:23.58] The city whose groves are bathed in the glory of the Great God!
One more thing, there’s this amazing moment of “word painting” by the words “thou art surrounded by wild birds, who sing thy praises”. Yes! The piccolo and flutes are amazing. Let’s take a look at the score:
Did you catch what the low brass was doing? Let’s have a listen then:
[00:00.00] No lyrics or captions here
The “loneliness” motif (P1.b) returns triumphantly in the brass and low strings. It symbolizes the transfiguration of the narrator’s loneliness as the passing cloud is at last on its way to deliver a message to his wife. The “loneliness” motif is repeated ascending culminating into one last climax of the Introduction as the narrator sings about his loneliness to the same descending theme as the beginning of this section (Th.I1):
to my love. Tell her of the longing that burns
Tarry not, O Cloud, tarry not!
A new motif is introduced, the “Tarry not” motif (I’ll name Th.I3 even though it technically doesn’t belong in the Introduction). This is very important as this motif exists both as a musical and literary device to indicate scene/section transitions.
[00:00.00] O cloud, O harbinger of joy, [00:15.20] Bear a message to my love. [00:32.12] Tell her of the longing [00:37.13] that burns my soul. [00:45.07] Tarry not, O Cloud, tarry not!
The overall structure of the Introduction is roughly ABBA.
This section follows a strict: A T1 T2 T3/B form. An introduction/preamble, followed by the description of 3 events with the third one being longer than the first 2, forming the conclusion/tail. Each event/scene starts with the same musical motif (I’ll name A.1), each starting with the words “At the sound of thy thunder…” They are as follows:
hills rejoice. In gratitude they reach out toward
thee. Veil their heads in thy embrace. Pour
down thy rain in huge torrents upon them.
Quench the fierce forest fires that assail them.
At the sound of thy thunder the birds rejoice.
They rise up hailing thee and fly with thee
toward the Himālaya.
At the sound of thy thunder the lonely worker
rejoices. He leaves his toil in the field and
Musically, the basses introduce the first scene:
The altos then introduce the second scene. Finally, the tenors sing the third one:
This time, the choir comes in tutti with the third scene and conclusion.
Section A ends with the words “[…] of the flowers thou hast revived.” On the word “revived,” the strings quietly introduce Th.B1’ which is derived from P.2a (the “life” motif). Once again, Th.I3 (“Tarry not”) marks the end of section 3.
Let’s have a listen:
[00:00.00] No lyrics or captions here
Th.B1’ slowly melts into Th.B1 as introduced by the French Horns here. Notice how the melodic contours (up-down-up-down) are kept, only embellished with appoggiaturas in between. A case can be made for Th.B1’ being present in the undulating bassline.
After some interplay between the horns and winds, the choir comes in. What is the most peculiar: at rehearsal mark 14, the accompaniment still plays in 6/8 while the choir comes in 2/4. The polyrhythms give the choir a general flow to it. This section has a loose ABA arch form.
[00:00.00] (Beautiful French Horn melody) [00:06.34] Behold the villages, the hedges white with flow'rs, [00:13.40] the trees in the sacred groves [00:19.31] whose branches hang down heavy with nesting birds. [00:25.60] (...)
Holst beautifully builds and develops this theme by thickening the texture of the voices. The second part is introduced by an augmentation of Th.B1 in the flutes. The words are:
On marshy banks the plantains arise. Sprinkle
the buds of the jasmine that grow near the
forest rivers. [...]
Delightful word painting here as demonstrated by the tremolo in the strings and agitated Th.B1. The choir sings a descending dotted eighth figure to highlight the falling rain. See if you can find more instances of word painting!
Interestingly enough, Th.B1 is present throughout this section. Remember Th.B1 is derived from Th.B1’ which is derived from the opening “life” motif (P.2a). Everywhere, we encounter the beauty of life - the rich orchids, the birds - and the creation of life - the plantain shoots, the jasmines growing by the forests. Life is the theme of this section so it makes sense that the motif of life is present throughout.
Finally, Section B closes with a spine-tingling, grandiose and lush sweeping restatement of Th.B2 in the brasses and strings. The voices join in to finish the second part of the restatement in a 3-part stretto with a gorgeous appoggiatura in the sopranos. Have a listen:
[00:00.00] (lushing sweeping melody, the timpani is a nice touch too) [00:09.59] The sound (...) [00:12.10] is wafted by the south wind [00:16.87] filled with the fragrance of the opening lotus. [00:25.60] (...)
Once again, Th.C1’ is derived from the “life” motif. Furthermore, this allows Section B to blend smoothly into Section C. However, the atmosphere is different; the dissonant suspensions by the high winds punctuated by abrupt silences. Let’s see if you can identify when Th.C1’ transforms into Th.C1.
[00:00.00] No lyrics or captions here
This solo is quite thematically interesting. Let’s take a look at the words:
who hath been absent so long:
a poor thin wandering stream,
like the braided tresses of one early widowed.
On her banks the trees shed their withered leaves
in silent sympathy.
Let not her pleading glances be in vain.
Listening to an excerpt, see if you can identify anything odd/out of the ordinary.
[00:00.00] a poor thin wandering stream [00:09.10] like the braided tresses of one early widowed.
Did you hear it? It’s very subtle. How about we take a look at the score?
This is very interesting; the narrator is being reminded of his widowed wife so the “loneliness” motif from the very very beginning is played. Furthermore, this is the first time material from the very first theme (Th.P1) is being quoted. Let’s continue, see if you can identify all of the themes:
[00:00.00] On her banks, the trees shed their withered leaves in silent sympathy. [00:17.77] (...) [00:21.09] Let not her pleading glances be in vain! [00:27.79] Pour down thy rain on her, fill her heart with gladness. [00:38.22] Yet beware! [00:45.44] (...) [01:13.29] Yet beware, lest the sight of her beauty [01:20.75] tempt thee to forget thy high purpose, [01:28.97] to forsake thy journey and, drinking in her loveliness
A lot is going on, so I’ll break it into 3 excerpts to study.
Here, we see the fluid transition between the current Th.C1 and the “life” theme from the beginning (P.2a). But where is life? The trees “shed[ding] their withered leaves” seem pretty dead to me.
Rain brings life and joy upon everything. From the words “Bringer of rain…”, “O harbinger of joy…”, “Bringer of joy”, the Cloud symbolizes life and joy. Not only does the rain revive the stream, it “fill[s] her heart with gladness”.
“Yet Beware!” The Narrator warns the Cloud (the story is told from a second-person perspective). The first theme (Th.P1) returns as a foreshadowing of the following phrases.
He warns the Cloud to not forget about the message to his love. Thus, we hear the interplay between the “love” motif and countersubject beneath the alto solo. The open fifth shows the yearning and longing while the descending chromatic countersubject is the depression and loneliness.
Thank you for reading all of this. As we approach the musical climax of this piece, we will see many thematic ideas start developing and intertwining. This has been really fun to write (at the cost of some of my soul). I hope you stay for the second part! We’ll be paying the Himālayas a visit then.