The pain of losing a loved one is a universal theme in art, and oftentimes that expression is achingly beautiful. The ability to perform this particular alchemy is a gift that can offer solace — and solidarity — to the grieving. Brookfield composer Erik Nielsen has that ability: He recently completed a song cycle, with text by his younger brother Lars, that is sure to resonate with many listeners. After all, Erik says, “I don’t know anybody who hasn’t lost someone to cancer.” The five-part piece was created in honor of the brothers’ older sibling, Karl, who succumbed to a brain tumor in 1998.
Their first audience will be at the Rochester Federated Church this Sunday, July 8. That’s when the Rochester Chamber Music Society, which commissioned the work, will perform the Nielsens’ “The Falling of Trees.” The title comes from a line in Lars’ poetry: “At the end, you remembered long-ago levees breaking, / but not the falling of nearby trees.” In the piece for piano, violin, viola, cello and baritone, Montpelier singer and actor Simon Chausse will supply the voice. Erik Nielsen worked with him on 2000’s A Fleeting Animal: An Opera from Judevine (penned by Vermont poet/playwright David Budbill). “I felt very good about working with Simon again,” says Nielsen. “He sang lead in my opera really well.”
Nielsen says the inclusion of a baritone in a “pretty standard chamber ensemble” is not typical, but Chausse’s voice “seemed to be a good vocal expression for these words — it’s a male voice in the poems.”
Lars Nielsen says he’s wanted to collaborate with his composer brother for a long time. “For some reason in 1999, I got the idea to challenge myself to write 300 poems [in a year], which I did,” he explains. “Thinking about subject matter, there were certainly some events from when Karl was sick that were poignant to me.” As his 50th birthday approached in 2005 — Lars is the youngest of the brothers, who are each separated by five years — he approached Erik with the idea of doing something to honor Karl.
“He asked me to look at the poems, and I did,” Erik recalls. “I said, ‘How about a song cycle?’ That seemed the most logical way of collaborating . . . I asked if he was amenable to revisions, and he said yes. Then I just had to write the music.”
Erik began in late January and finished in May. “Considering that it’s over 25 minutes long, that’s a pretty good pace,” he says. But if the work progressed quickly, it was painful. “I’d never taken on something so personal,” Erik acknowledges. “I had no idea how hard it would really be. The poetry deals with Karl’s life from childhood right through his illness and his death. The emotions are really intense.”
Lars notes that the sibling partnership was a unique opportunity, albeit tinged by shared sorrow. “Our brother would have thought highly of this,” he believes. “He was gifted both with music and language. If he’s out there somewhere, his soul is smiling.”
Karl Nielsen, who lived in Chelsea, was an English teacher and also an actor, writer and musician, Erik says. But as a boy Karl was known for his love of hockey, which is recalled in the second poem of the cycle: “Long ago, you were the ice’s happy warrior, relentlessly graceful. / Your stick and skates pointed the way toward the joys of the cold.” In the last verse, Lars suggests a future reunion: “Someday in the sky, the divine roar of your pleasure will shock generations, / As you take my hand and tug me, your joyous apprentice, to race among the stars.”
It is hard to imagine these words set to music, but in Erik Nielsen’s imagination, language fluidly transforms, as if emerging from a chrysalis, into melody. “I like to think in terms of an arc,” he says. “I thought this would speak to a lot of people not just in terms of loss but in terms of how one goes on from there . . . My hope is that people will find something to relate to in a number of ways.”
The Rochester Chamber Music Society performs "The Falling of Trees" and other works on Sunday, July 8, at 4 p.m.; pre-concert talk at 3:30 p.m. Free. Info, 767-9234.