In His Ballet Score The Snow Queen, Kenji Bunch Conjures an Icy Winter Landscape and a Frozen Psyche

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A stamp of Belarus showing author Hans Andersen and the Snow Queen
A stamp of Belarus showing author Hans Andersen and the Snow Queen

The best way to appreciate nature is undoubtedly to be in it and perhaps caring for it to the degree that it needs tending. But there’s little to do outside when the ground might be frozen and most plants are dormant–as they should be, giving us all the more opportunity to expand our appreciation of nature to other ways.

This is what the brilliant and often mystical Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke was doing in 1922 when he wrote a young admirer named Lisa Heise whose life had taken an awful turn. What he said to her is translated here by William Needham:

Tending my inner garden went splendidly this winter. Suddenly to be healed again and aware that the very ground of my being — my mind and spirit — was given time and space in which to go on growing; and there came from my heart a radiance I had not felt so strongly for a long time . . . You tell me how you are able to feel fully alive every moment of the day and that your inner life is brimming over; you write in the knowledge that what you have, if one looks at it squarely, outweighs and cancels all possible privations and losses that may later come along. It is precisely this that was borne in upon me more conclusively than ever before as I worked away during the long winter months . . .

In 1933, the 24-year-old French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil wrote to herself in her notebook about the need for

Discipline of the attention for manual work—no distraction or dreaming. But no obsession either. One must continually watch what one is doing, without being carried away by it. Another kind of discipline is needed for using the mind with support from the imagination. And yet a third kind for reflection. You scarcely possess any of the third kind. A complete being possesses all 3. You ought to be a complete being.

It’s these themes of accepting and enjoying what you have and cultivating the imagination and reflection that our society often prevents that make mid-winter an ideal time to consider an art form as ephemeral as the garden: dance.

Few subjects could be as timely, typical, and topical for this season as “The Snow Queen,” which is why you should furiously shovel, scrape, endure a mixture of sand and slush, walk gingerly on slick surfaces, and otherwise go out of your way to hear the inspired treatment by American composer Kenji Bunch. Pass this opportunity and you might be kicking yourself in the butt so hard it’ll hurt even more than the last time you slipped on the ice and fell. (You still remember that, don’t you?)

The Snow Queen on Her Throne of Ice by Edmund Dulac (1911)
The Snow Queen on Her Throne of Ice (1911) Edmund Dulac

Remember for a moment the kind of scenes this music aims to represent:

The walls of the palace were of driving snow, and the windows and doors of cutting winds. There were more than a hundred halls there, according as the snow was driven by the winds. The largest was many miles in extent; all were lighted up by the powerful Aurora Borealis, and all were so large, so empty, so icy cold, and so resplendent!

Empty, vast, and cold were the halls of the Snow Queen. The flickering flame of the northern lights could be plainly seen, whether they rose high or low in the heavens, from every part of the castle. In the midst of its empty, endless hall of snow was a frozen lake, broken on its surface into a thousand forms; each piece resembled another, from being in itself perfect as a work of art, and in the center of this lake sat the Snow Queen, when she was at home. She called the lake “The Mirror of Reason,” and said that it was the best, and indeed the only one in the world.

Choreographer Toni Pimble added more acclaim to an illustrious career through her interpretation of The Snow Queen for the Eugene Ballet Company of Oregon. Although a staged work is best seen in person and can be difficult to reproduce any other way, we are fortunate enough to have Kenji Bunch’s atmospheric and evocative score on a 2-disc set from Innova Recordings.

the cover of CD to ballet The Snow Queen by Kenji BunchWhat we hear is Brian McWhorter conducting Orchestra Next as for the production, and you’ll find the magic in the music comes across so well the rest of the story plays well in the theater of the imagination. So put it on, and let the musicians conjure a village with a boy and a girl, gardens, forests, an ice palace, and an affirmative transformation from frigidity to freedom.

As critic Jon Sobel put it, though the music “might make you wish you could see the ballet, it won’t leave you frozen.”

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