Allain, Richard: It sifts from leaden sieves
SATB and harp or piano
Words by Emily Dickinson
Richard Allain’s music captures the unruffled mystery of a perfect snow-scene, imagined in words by reclusive New England poet Emily Dickinson. Conveying stillness in its rippling chords and delicate figuration, the harp (or piano) adds atmosphere and a most delicate background to the choir’s calm rendition of the poem, in five verses that compare the snow to alabaster wool, and to a crystal veil cast over ‘summer’s empty room’. Well known for his work in education as well as for his widely performed choral works, the composer here adds to the repertoire of winter music a fine score that will leave a haunting impression in any seasonal programme.
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It sifts from leaden sieves is a setting of a poem by Emily Dickinson, which is scored for SATB and harp or piano. Avoiding direct use of the word ‘snow’, Dickinson’s poem instead suggests the sifting of flour as a metaphor for snowfall, which transforms everyday scenes – of a road, a field, a fence – into a world of poetic beauty through its imagery of ‘alabaster wool’ and ‘crystal veil’. Each of the five stanzas explores different textures in the choral writing. The fourth stanza is a cappella, and the last recalls the opening melody, but adds a soprano descant. The music of the accompaniment evokes the wintry falling snow through a series of descending figures across a broad tessitura. The carol was premiered by its dedicatees, the Schola Cantorum of London’s Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School at the church of Our Lady of Victories, Kensington in 2021, with Olivia Jaguers, harp, conducted by Scott Price.
Another newly published piece that skilfully places an instrumental accompaniment with voices, which again would work so well with young or adult voices, is by Richard Allain:
It sifts from leaden sieves
Of course, it is not possible for everyone to have access to a harp, but it would be a wonderful, vibrant and supportive addition. It will be too late to include this in a Christmas programme this year, but it would sit comfortably within a seasonal, maybe winter, programme, with the amazing words of Emily Dickinson that omit the actual word ‘snow’ but use the metaphor of ‘alabaster wool’ and a crystal veil on stump, and stack and stem, the summer’s empty room and speak of howit transforms everyday views. The choirs calm delivery of the poem throughout the five verses is mostly accompanied by gently flowing chords but there is a rich variety of choral textures, including an a cappella verse and the simple but effective repetition of the opening melody with an added soprano descant within the final verse. All the vocal lines sit comfortably within the vocal range, and the instrumental accompaniment, in beautiful contrast, touches on a wider tessitura which seems to sensitively frame the expansive scene suggested in the poem.
Jeremy Summerly, Choir & Organ
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