THE MOURNING JEWELS
for SATB chorus & orchestra
"I don’t have the appropriate words to describe how magnificent your piece was. I was touched and inspired by your music. Thank you for doing what you do."
"I have been going through some hardship of loss the past two weeks and experienced lots of emotion fluctuations that impacted me negatively. Singing your piece was healing me in some way, and helped me to regain the motivation of pushing myself to be a better and stronger person."
"An old family friend of mine passed away last summer, and The Mourning Jewels was very comforting because I wasn't really able to mourn his death. Thank you."
"...it is truly a "gem," so to speak, exquisite and magical in its progression and construction with so many extraordinary moments."
"...your piece was therapeutic and perfect and described exactly how that loss felt. Thank you so, so much."
"The piece you wrote was stunning on so many levels. It was powerful, well-written, and has left a lasting impact on me. Thank you!"
The Mourning Jewels
The inspiration for this piece came to me while I was visiting the Victoria and Albert museum in London. This museum is an anthropological collection of artifacts that spans from antiquity to present day. While there, I happened upon a room that contained a jewelry exhibit highlighting 18th-century English “mourning jewelry.” The pieces themselves were exquisite and unique, made of cast iron with a matte finish and jet. These pieces of jewelry were worn by middle class citizens during times of mourning. I found them to be surprisingly fascinating for one main reason. Even though these pieces are “marred,” in a way, their beauty is still evident. These pieces serve as a perfect metaphor for hardship. Beauty can emerge from difficulty, though it might retain a visible scar. In this work I desired to present the journey of hardship and healing through a choral/orchestral work. The first movement paints a general instance of distress and pain. The second is a progression from the dreary senselessness of grief towards hope, and the third is an expression of joy and peace.
The text for this poem came from the result of the poet’s personal experience with a miscarriage. Originally, the poem explicitly mentioned the loss of a “baby,” but in order to make the traumatic nature of hardship more universal, certain words were replaced with the poet’s approval. We altered some of the text, making it more vague while still retaining the general mood of loss and bereavement. Elements of the piece depict key motives inherent to the experience—the sopranos and altos sing a lullaby, and the tenors and basses respond with pangs of regret and sorrow—as if a mother and father were in mourning. The piece evolves from nothing: a placid, improvisational piano solo into aleatoric whispers that eventually gather into a cluster chord for the first choral entrance. Later, a violin duet is accompanied by pizzicato strings that represent a heartbeat. This falls into a stark a cappella section that is closed with listless high string harmonics. The pain of this movement’s experience is left open, empty, and lonely.
Afterwards, the morning is bitter.
Afterwards, dead leaves, wind, and the uncaring sky.
The light gone suddenly from the world.
Afterwards there is nothing,
Not even a scrap to be found.
II. The Grey Bastion
In the second movement, the idea of a bastion, or a stronghold, has been paired with the color grey, normally associated with grief, ambiguity, and uncertainty. The journey towards healing begins in this movement with the chorus acting as an orchestral section, only singing vowel sounds throughout. Their melodic lines are colored with sorrow while the strings interject with painful, harsh dissonances. Halfway through the movement, the harmonic language shifts towards a major tonality. A solo horn accompanies the tenor and basses in a hopeful and joyous solo. The first three notes of the hymn, “Be Still My Soul,” a melody from Sibelius’ Finlandia, are hinted at within this movement. It acts as a precursor to a more complete hymn setting, which is present in the final movement. The strings continually interject with chordal dissonances, acting as pangs of memory and reminders of loss. The movement resolves into a stable and gentle tonality, signifying the warm light that might be beyond the mist.
Be Still, My Soul
III. A Healing
The final movement is a song of victory, of calm, and of hope. An explosive cinematic fanfare starts the movement and the strings follow with furious triplet figures. Following this triumphant introduction, the choir cries out a song of prayer. The orchestra slowly disintegrates into a solo piano accompanimental figure with the tenors and basses singing a simple melody. The strings slowly resurface and the chorus takes one final glance backwards to the pain of the first two movements while hovering on the word “loss.” However, grief is overcome in the re-setting of the melody of “Be Still My Soul,” paired with the crux of the entire work: “The dead only die if the living refuse to sing for them.” This movement closes in a dance-like 12/8 section, strewn with individual motives that coalesce into a joyous conclusion.
We pray for you to return
in a knot of delight.
Be silver Polaris dots,
dancing at the sides of our eyes,
velvet whispers guiding pulse,
and honey smoothing
over the tremulous voice of loss.
Be the surprise air
that dances through grief’s gills.
The dead only die when the living
refuse to sing for them.
We bend the iron of time until
you are here.
We sift your light through
the jewel of a final breath.
- Yalie Kamara