Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Music for the Summer Solstice

Stonehenge at Solstice
June 21st is the Summer Solstice, also known as Midsummer, Litha or St. John's Day in English-speaking countries. It is the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and to ancient people the sun seemed to stand still on that day.  "Solstice" comes from the Latin for sun (sol ) and to stand still (sistere ).

In pre-Christian Europe, the solstice was considered the middle of the summer, the time when the sun was at the height of its power before fading back to be reborn at Yule, the Winter Solstice.  The stones of the famous Stonehenge ruins in England line up with the solstice, one of many ancient sites that do.  Later, the Christian Church allowed celebrations during this time in conjunction with the feast (festival) celebrating the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.

Prehistoric Germanic and Nordic people believed that during the Summer Solstice fey or fairies were most active. This idea survived into the Christian era and took root in many traditions and works of art. The most famous of these is Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." (DVD Video 61) Composers have also been influenced by the idea that magic and fairies are afoot at the Solstice. 

Two famous composers were inspired by Shakespeare's play.  Felix Mendelssohn composed a set of incidental music for the play (Ein Sommernachtstraum in German), (CD 6693 or CD 17368).  The second is a full opera adaption by Benjamin Britten (CD 5092 and DVD Video 2037).

More recent composers have also been inspired by legends of Midsummer. William Alwyn used the legend that Midsummer's Eve increases passion in the aria "Midsummer's Night" from his only opera, Miss Julie, where the title character whips herself into a sexual frenzy as she begins an illicit affair. This aria can be found in the Music Collection on Kate Royal's CD, Midsummer Night (CD 18622).Sir Michael Tippett combines elements of Shakespeare's play with Welsh legends about Midsummer in his Opera, The Midsummer Marriage (CD 7448).

Musicians from other genres besides classical music have also been inspired by the Summer Solstice. American Jazz saxophonist Paul Winter has released a recording, Celtic Solstice (CD 6335), from his annual Solstice Concert series at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (left) in New York City.

Come to the Music Collection to check out any of these Summer Solstice inspired recordings.  DVDs are available for check-out from the Educational Resources Collections counter.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely love this CD! My favorite track is And Winter Came. Next would be Trains and Winter Rains. The others are phenomenal as well. An earlier post stated this CD has a feel of cynical commercialism. If you go to her web site and listen to her explanation of this CD she states she wanted to do a more modern take on Christmas carols. Now days unfortunately commercialism at Christmas time is just about every where you turn. The only grievance I have with this CD is I miss when in her earlier work she would blend her native Celtic tongue with English and this CD is predominately English. Other than that I would definitely call this CD a winner!