Since its publication and first performance in 2000, Jonathan Dove’s song cycle for double chorus and piano The Passing of the Year has become a firm favourite with choirs and audiences alike. And of all ages, even though older singers and listeners may perceive the irresistible pulse of clock and calendar in a more alarming way than their younger associates. These inspired settings of Blake, Dickinson, Peele, Nashe and Tennyson take you on an eighteen-minute voyage on three plains simultaneously: our experience of seasonal change as observable phenomena (buds opening, bees, hay, snow, light intensity, wrinkles); that same experience as a metaphor for our lifespan (youth, traveller, death); its distillation in memory of the composer’s mother who died young when Dove was still only twenty.

Jonathan Dove (c) Marshall Light Studio, with permission from Chester Promotions

This collective celebration in song is at the same time an intimate enquiry and provides a fine illustration of “how music, in bridging the universal and the deeply personal, illuminates the meaning of intimacy”, words written by the painter, poet and write John Berger during the last months of his life:

“Songs put their arms around linear time… The tempo, the beat, the loops, the repetitions of a song offer a shelter from the flow of linear time — a shelter in which future, present, and past can console, provoke, ironize, and inspire one another.” John Berger, Some notes on song, essay published in Confabulations (2016).

We do need that reassuring arm. As any financial adviser will tell you, there are two certainties in life -death and taxation – while scientific advisers argue that there is just one: the Second Law of Thermodynamics, summarised eloquently by Lulu Miller:
“It’s not if, it’s when. Chaos is the only sure thing in this world…. there is no escaping the Second Law of Thermodynamics: entropy is only growing; it can never be diminished, no matter what we do… Chaos will rot your plants and kill your dog and rust your bike. It will decay your most precious memories, topple your favourite cities, wreck any sanctuary you can ever build.” Lulu Miller Why fish don’t exist: a story of loss, love, and the hidden order of life (2020).

The Passing of the Year spares us the banality of annual tax returns (the closest we get is “Rich men, trust not in wealth”) but Chaos intervenes with a vengeance in the sixth song Adieu! Farewell earth’s bliss! The text (Dove uses the first three of the six verses) comes from Summer’s Last Will and Testament, a play by Thomas Nashe that refers to the progress by Queen Elizabeth I through the English countryside in the summer of 1592 when there was a severe drought and an outbreak of bubonic plague. ‘Summer’ also refers to Henry VIII’s fool, Henry Summer whose character opens the play. The poem became well-known independently as Litany in time of plague and it serves as the emotional core of Dove’s cycle. The music in The Passing of the Year eschews explicit word painting, in the manner of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for example, deriving its energy from the drama of the poetic vocabulary – “return!”, “clust’ring summer”, “flourish”, “Answer July –“, “enflame”, “aspire”, “ring out, wild bells” – but the most dramatic passage occurs at the close of this sixth and penultimate song, life and hope hanging by a semitonal thread before one of just a few silent moments in the whole cycle gives way to imploration for renewal, an existential turnaround that has an impact on the listener similar to the ‘Et resurrexit’ section that follows the ‘Crucifixus’ from Bach’s B minor Mass or the lull after the storm in Beethoven’s 6th Symphony.

A hallmark of the best composers is the ability to convey such moments of intense drama by the simplest, most economical means, recycling and re-configuring tried and tested techniques. Let’s take a closer look at the end of song no. 6 and and the start of no. 7.

Within the notional key of B flat minor (associations with Chopin’s funereal 2nd Piano Sonata?) the piano tolls for the third and final time, two three-note chords a semitone apart. The pitches deployed – F to G flat and C to D flat – are the same pitches that create the tintinnabulation within chords 2, 3, 5 and 6 of the choral litany, thereby creating a unity of horizontal and vertical harmonic space.

Meanwhile, the sung motif ‘I am sick, I must die’, a semitonal compression of the rising, major second motif from the opening movement, is transformed vertically and horizontally (B flat minor to A minor/C major) into new year’s revelry and the recovery of hope, the hope for a “thousand years of peace”.

The bells of the final movement ring the changes, modulations turn up the heat again and the singers may be seen dancing to Dove’s infectious rhythms. Just as in the opening song, where the singers appear to discover an accompaniment that has already been underway for an indefinite time, there is the sense in bar 8 of ‘Ring out, wild bells’ of a party rejoined after a period of isolation and introspection. For we need optimism, stubborn optimism, in the face of ‘speck on a speck on a speck’ explanations of our place in the Cosmos and the despair of climate scientists. Lulu Miller again: “So what do you do after letting go of hope? Where do you go?”

You could go back a few minutes into this piece, to the third song, ‘Answer July’, a snapshot of the year in your garden or surrounding countryside. Emily Dickinson’s short, almost entirely monosyllabic poem has a nursery-rhyme or child’s game simplicity, its playful quibbling conveying profound sentiments about the provisions of Nature staring us in the face if we look for them. Susan Kornfield has analysed this poem brilliantly in her blog the prowling Bee:

Excerpt from the digitised manuscript of Answer July from the Houghton Library. Luckily for us, Emily’s sister decided against fulfilling Emily’s instructions to burn all her manuscripts after her death.

“The poem unfolds as a small, interrogative drama. Autumn begins by demanding that July account for bees, the blushes on ripened fruit and the harvest-ready grass. For what would Autumn be without the harvest and the honey? July punts the question back to Spring by demanding May account for her seeds and buds. After all, they produce the grass and flowers that attract the bees.
May doesn’t answer except to now demand answers about the winter from the Jay, a common, overwintering bird in Massachusetts [the species referred to is the Blue Jay, not the species familiar to British birdwatchers]. Her bulbs and fruit trees…. require an extended period of cold to blossom and set fruit.
The blue jay turns querulously to autumn about her corn maize, misty haze and “Bur” [remains of harvest]… Blue jays depend on bur and corn for food and winter can hardly be expected to deliver Spring’s material without the gifts of Autumn. At this point the Year steps in.It is all here, she soothes the quibblers. I encompass it all.” .

The poem is a long way off from the pastoralism of Edmund Spenser’s The Shepherdes Calender or Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, nature kept at arm’s length. Instead, like the English Romantics she admired, Dickinson, who was an expert gardener, takes us right into the mechanics of nature, striving to be at one with it. Dove’s music similarly avoids the hazy meandering of an earlier generation of English composers when depicting the rural landscape, matching the ‘bold, cheeky” tone of the words with agile regularity alternating with deft syncopations.

In summary, through his choice of texts and inspired, energised musical invention, Dove reminds us of the reassurance and salvation to be found in our experiences of how each year passes and how that keeps hope alive. And that is why choirs and audiences will keep returning to this wonderful work.