Off the Beaten Track: Exploring Joy & Sadness in Elyse Anne Kakacek’s ‘formless,’ a Touching Recording of Dvořák’s ‘Biblical Songs’By Chris Ruel
Wild rides abound when you take the trail less taken, and in this column, we’ve taken some crazy trips. But in this installment of “Off the Beaten Track,” the album we’ll explore provides us a chance to settle down and reflect.
Elyse Anne Kakacek’s sophomore album, “formless” speaks of loss, hope, and joy—themes that permeate our existence during this historic time. “formless” is as intriguing as the soprano’s first album, “Untethered,” and with it, Kakacek continues to establish herself as a gifted interpreter of art song as she replaces the slow-boil sensuality of “Untethered” for a reverent journey through the rarely performed “Biblical Songs,” Op. 99, by Antonin Dvořák.
Dvořák’s Five Months of Loss
“Biblical Songs,” was composed between March 5 and March 26, 1894, and consists of a cycle of 10 Psalms.
In a letter to Dr. Josef Tragy the Director of the Prague Conservatory dated February 4, 1894, the composer makes mention of the work. “I have also written a new Quartet in F major and a Quintet in E flat for strings (also in the press) then I have written a Sonatina (for my children) for violin and piano, then a Suite for piano and 10 Songs from the Holy Bible, “David’s Psalms.”’
A few weeks later, in a letter to his publisher, Fritz Simrock, Dvořák references the cycle once more, writing, “I have a Sonatina for violin and piano (easy), then a Suite for pianoforte (of medium difficulty), then 10 new Songs (2 vols.) taken from the Bible…” It is in this second letter that the composer mentions his father’s death and his longing to return to Prague. “How I am looking forward to seeing my native land again! Unfortunately, I shall go there with a sad heart for I shall not see my aged Father again. He died just four weeks ago!”
Musicologist Mark Evan Bonds, Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill notes in his “A History of Music in Western Culture” that Dvořák’s “Biblical Songs” was written after the deaths of the composer’s two friends, Tchaikovsky (November 1893), and conductor/pianist/composer Hans von Bülow (February 1894). Dvořák’s loss was compounded by the death of his father in Bohemia on March 25, 1894.
After a 21-day burst of composing, Dvořák completed “Biblical Songs” one day after his father’s death. It makes sense that the composer found solace in keeping busy (note the amount of work he enumerates to Tragy and Simrock) and that some of his creative energy went into writing sacred music.
Kakacek’s “formless” Takes Form
The genesis of Kakacek’s recording was a November 2018 performance of a selection of “Biblical Songs” at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church where her collaborator, organist/pianist Ryan Jackson, is the William S. Perper Director of Music and Fine Arts Ministries.
According to the “formless” press release, both musicians were enamored of the music. When Kakacek went searching for a recording set in English and sung by a woman, none were to be found, so the duo decided to fill the gap. Uncovering and recording lesser-known works by titanic composers is a gift to music lovers and I applaud Kakacek’s ongoing courage to produce albums of meaning by digging into the back catalogs of composers old and new. “formless” enriches and expands our understanding of Dvořák’s work and introduces new pieces into the repertoire. This is a boon for singers and listeners who want to go off-roading.
Kakacek stated in the album’s announcement that she has always felt a connection with Dvořák’s work because of her Czech heritage. COVID added another layer, infusing the album with honest emotion.
“Now more than ever, in the time of COVID-19, these songs can teach us how to mourn loved ones, mourn dreams, mourn normalcy—and from that mourning, we can realize the lack of form and control is an opportunity to seek beauty and faith in something greater, and that nothing is ever truly lost,” the soprano noted.
Approachable Art Song and Cycle Structure
The power of Dvořák’s “Biblical Songs” resides in its deceptive simplicity—it’s not music that challenges the listener in terms of approachability and that’s a good thing, especially for those new to such music. I found the work to be highly accessible, something aided greatly by the English translation and familiarity with the text.
The fourth song in the cycle, Psalm 23, “God is My Shepherd,” is an excellent example of this; the Psalm is one of the most well-known and oft-quoted passages of Scripture. It’s been set to music and heard so many times, much of its power has unfortunately diminished. Dvořák’s music, and Kakacek and Jackson’s interpretation of it, revives much of the Scripture’s soothing strength.
The 10 songs progress from darkness, with Psalm 97:2-6, “Clouds and Darkness,” to joy and light, as the album concludes with Psalm 98:1-8, “Sing Ye a Joyful Song.” Dvořák selected and structured the cycle into a universal narrative. The tenebrous opener segues into pleas for comfort (Psalm 119:114-119, “Lord, Thou Art My Refuge;” Psalm 55:1-8, “Hear My Prayer; and Psalm 23:1-4, “God is My Shepherd). Hope arises with Psalms 145:1-7 & 144:9 combined into “I will sing a New Song.” This is followed by another supplication; Psalm 63:1-8, “Hear My Prayer, O Lord.”
The inclusion of Psalm 137:1-6, “By the Waters of Babylon,” and Psalm 25:16-21, “Turn to Me” are interesting interpolations of sadness. Dvořák’s narrative was on the emotional upswing, so-to-speak; so, why does he jump back to grief, not once but twice? Glimpses of hope—whether personal or corporate—come and go. We’ve lived Dvořák’s cycle throughout the course of 2020.
The Co-existence of Sadness and Joy
In his book, “Surprised by Joy,” 20th-century theologian C.S. Lewis described joy as “distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”
Lewis posits that joy can’t exist without pain, and, many times, it co-exists with sadness. Dvořák’s “Biblical Songs” explores the same idea roughly 40 years before Lewis wrote about the subject.
Perhaps, it was with this idea in mind—joy and sadness as opposite sides of the same coin—that led the composer to structure the cycle as he did. To move from despair to full-on exuberance is less common than the moment-by-moment ups and downs expressed through the selection of text. Joy comes and joy goes, as does sadness, with neither maintaining dominance, though there may be long stretches in between the two.
As Dvořák completes the cycle with Psalm 121:1-8, “I Will Lift Mine Eyes” and Psalm 98:1-8, “Sing Ye a Joyful Song,” we, as listeners, hearken back to the clouds and darkness while experiencing the musical manifestation of the joy/sadness cycle we encounter in life.
Kakacek’s voice is rich, lush, and spellbinding as it traverses the Psalms, and the music allows her to open up her voice in a big way that’s dramatic and riveting while remaining personal. Kakacek’s previous album expresses earthly passion and love—corporeal intimacy.
“formless” invites the listener into a different type of intimate space, one where both Dvořák and Kakacek’s souls are bravely on display, making the recording a balm for our times. As we enter the closing days of a devastating year, “formless” reminds us to hold fast until the day joy returns.
Tracks of note: 1. “Clouds and Darkness;” 2. “Lord, Thou Art My Refuge;” 4. “God is My Shepherd;” and 10. “Sing Ye a Joyful Song.”