Journey to Horseshoe Bend (2002)

“The hour-long work sprawls as vast and languidly as the continent of its setting. Whispered voices and snatches of Aranda chants and Bach chorales recreate the miasma of delirious thoughts in the head of the dying pastor. When both cultures sing their version of Bach’s Wachet auf! – in the Aranda hymnal, it is simply known as No. 309, Kaarrerrai worlanparinya … – a great cultural divide, a cultural chasm centuries long seems to have been breached.

The capacity audiences in the two Opera House performances greeted the new work with sustained ovations.”  [Vincent Plush, “New work bridges Australian cultural divide,” Gramophone, June 12, 2003]

“It is good. Whether occupying centre stage with its cinematic, heart-warming swells of emotion, or underscoring the narrative with minutely observed timbral and rhyhmic detail, Schultz’s score serves the occasion well.

He and Williams share a fascination with cultural contradictions and, as in previous works, Schultz uses his broad vocabulary of musical icons deftly. So when Nataria Ladies Choir break into a seemingly spontaneous rendition of a Bach cantata, the unique vowel sounds of the Central Auustralian language Arrernte cut across the Central European tradition of hymn-singing.

Similarly, the classically trained purity of a boy soprano’s voice (David Bruce, as the young Theo) makes for a poignant dialogue with heavily accented words of Theo’s companion, Njitiaka (played by Aaron Pederson). The unwieldy array of orchestral and vocal forces – more than 150 performers on stage, with multiple conductors, a barrage of percussion and two choirs – is perhaps a little indulgent on the part of the composer, but he creates from this huge palette of sounds some genuinely original gestures and effects.

Indeed, it is an important work on two levels: it is a moving hymn to the transformative power of the Australian landscape, and beyond that, it is an impressive demonstration of the physical power of music to convey a feeling beyond words. This is a work which has clearly touched many lives during its creation and will continue to do so whenever it is performed.” visit article    [Harriet Cunningham, “Many follow the path of one man’s journey,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 30, 2003]

“This cantata contains some of the most touching music I have heard in an Australian work.

It is based on the mythologising novel of the same name by T.G.H. (Theodor) Strehlow, passionate chronicler of the Aranda people, among whom he was brought up on the Hermannsburg Mission in central Australia. Weaving together the unlikely cultural mix of Hermannsburg – German Lutheranism, settler secularism and ancient Aranda mythology – it is a vast woven fabric of cultural collision: awkward, complex, yet hugely life-affirming.

The story is that of the missionary Carl Strehlow, as told by his son, Theodor, mortally ill and travelling with his family and Aranda folk towards medical assistance he never reaches. As a rich symbol of cultural difference, Schultz interweaves the famous Lutheran chorale from Bach’s Cantata No. 40, Wachet Auf (Sleepers, Wake), which Strehlow the elder had translated into the Aranda language, and which, according to the book, was sung by the mission people as he was lifted onto a buggy for his final ride.

The Ntaria Ladies Choir from Hermannsburg sing it in Aranda with a distinctly focused nasal sound, rich with harmonics, and it recurs throughout the work as a symbol of cultural difference and coming together.

Structurally, the cantata has a form similar to that of a Bach cantata. Symbolically, the sound of the Aboriginal women’s voices highlights cultural estrangement and awkwardness; German Lutheran traditions in the Australian desert. At the end of scene two, there is a wonderfully touching passage as chorale phrases sung by Ntaria women are interwoven with polyphony from the Philharmonia choir, encapsulating a sense of hesitant awkwardness and hope among whites and cultural groundedness and placidity among the Aranda.

T.G.H. Strehlow’s part is sung with beautifully pure, vulnerable sound by the boy soprano David Bruce, while John Stanton commands the firm authority of a documentary voice-over as the narrator. Aaron Pedersen, in the spoken part of Njitiaka, gives colourful examples of the rhythmic lilt and flow of the Aranda language, while Rodney Macann, as the dying father, brings convincing European expressiveness into the cultural mix.

The orchestral part (Sydney Symphony), under David Porcelijn, is built up from the musical language of the chorale and adds another cultural element: that of the stirring, Hollywood “voyage” style, which is at odds with everything else, yet strangely effective in drawing it all together.

The epic and forward-moving musical narrative tone is broken at key moments such as the climactic death scene, in which the music becomes fierce while the text mixes biblical references with images of fire. The text selected by Gordon Williams is concise and to the point, maintaining a forward-moving narrative direction and underlining the journey metaphor at several levels: the personal mercy dash, the journey towards enlightenment and death which we all make, and the journey of two cultures towards uneasy understanding.

Schultz and Williams have constructed a vivid and bold work that goes straight to a raw point of contemporary Australian society.” [Peter McCallum, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 2005]

“This disc brings a new dimension to Journey to Horseshoe Bend, Theodor Strehlow’s story of his father, German Lutheran pastor Carl Strehlow, who served in the central Australian Hermannsburg Mission from 1894 to 1922. His final journey to reach medical help in Adelaide is the basis of this cantata composed by Andrew Schultz to Gordon Kalton Williams’ libretto. It gives a strong sense of the role of the Strehlow family in Australia’s centre. The searing heat, the centre’s majestic red mountains and the vibrancy of the indigenous culture all meld in this vital treasure of a work. Theodor’s story, sung by David Bruce and narrated by John Stanton and Aaron Pedersen, with baritone Rodney Macann, the Sydney Philharmonia Motet Choir, the Sydney Symphony conducted by David Porcelijn and the Ntaria Ladies Choir of Hermannsburg, is a reconciliation journey if ever there was one.” [Patricia Kelly, The Courier Mail, 5 February 2005]

“The story of Australia since European settlement is partly one of cultures meeting and interacting. This new cantata from composer Andrew Schultz and librettist Gordon Kalton Williams provides a fascinating insight into one of those meetings. Based on an autobiographical novel by TGH Strehlow, it tells the story of how, in 1922, his dying father (Carl) set out along the dry bed of the Finke River towards the railway at Oodnadatta, only to die on the way at Horseshoe Bend. For 28 years Carl had been the pastor at a Lutheran mission in Hermannsburg where his and the local Aranda people’s culture had freely intermingled. This cultural mixing is reflected in the cantata. It is sung in three different languages (German, Aranda and English) using the cantata form that Bach (himself a Lutheran) favoured. It also uses one of Bach’s most famous tunes (Wachet Auf!) as its musical base. This recording uses the same cast as the premiere performance with John Stanton and Aaron Pedersen (narrators), Rodney Macann (bass-baritone), David Bruce (boy soprano), the Ntaria Ladies Choir, the Sydney Philharmonia Motet Choir and the Sydney Symphony, all under the direction of David Porcelijn. The undoubted star of this disc is the Ntaria Ladies Choir, which was formed by Carl Strehlow during his time at Hermannsburg. They perform a chorus from Wachet Auf in the Aranda language as translated by Carl Strehlow. John Stanton (TGH Strehlow as an older man) narrates with authority. Aaron Pederson, himself an Aranda man, is perfectly cast as Njitiaka – one of their companions on the journey. Rodney Macann (bass-baritone) brings gravity to the role of the dying preacher. David Bruce (boy soprano) is splendid as the young TGH, while the Sydney Philharmonia Motet Choir handles their various tasks with ease. This is an excellent recording of an important new Australian work that can hopefully earn a large audience.” [Andrew Fraser, Music Australia Guide, 1 March 2005]

“This is a monumental work in the mould of Michael Tippet’s A Child of Our Time. It tells the story, as seen through the eyes of his 14 year old son Theo, of the desperate journey in 1922 of a mortally-ill Carl Strehlow, the Lutheran pastor and superintendent of the Hermannsburg Aboriginal mission. Seeking medical help in Adelaide, they travel by horse and buggy for the train at Oodnadatta down the dry bed of the Finke River – the journey ended tragically at Horseshoe Bend.

Rich with symbols and allusions, the music and the text both draw from many sources. Representing the mingling of Christian theology and the beliefs of the local Aranda people, the J.S.Bach chorale Wachet Auf is never far from the surface. It is set in the Aranda language and is sung by the Ntaria Ladies Choir from Hermannsburg; the chorale also runs like the dry riverbed through the instrumental forces of the work.

The text draws from three languages – Aranda, English and German; however the musical language is mostly Euro-centric. Some elements of Aboriginal and culture make their way into the music, but the instrumentation is orchestral. A strong emphasis on brass and the use of simple pitch constructions evokes comparison to Copland. The use of familiar music, the Bach chorale with its usual associations, conveys a particular emotional message. As the party leaves on its journey to an uncertain end, the chorale in its strong major homophony is an uplifting and positive farewell, sharply contrasting with accompanying wailing and an answering chorus of the Lord’s Prayer in German in a very dark setting. Such conflicting emotional states, used at various points throughout, strongly portray a sense of impending doom.

Schultz employs spatial displacement of instrumental groups, with brass and percussion forming impenetrable walls around a string concertino – representing the walls of the gorge at Horseshoe Bend – and giving a nod to baroque use of antiphonal groupings.” [Anthony Linden Jones, MCA Music Forum, August-October 2005]

“We hear less from Oz than we should. The two-night launch of Andrew Schultz’s Journey to Horseshoe Bend at Sydney Opera House in 2003 touched Australian hearts. There were sold-out houses and standing ovations.

This 50-minute cantata depicts the swansong journey of German missionary Pastor Strehlow (sung splendidly by New Zealander Rodney Macann) through the Finke River, central Australia, in 1922 as witnessed by his son Theo (boy soprano David Bruce). English language is interspersed with many sections in German and Aboriginal Australian.

Choral writing is uplifting. The Ntaria Ladies Choir, brought down from central Australia’s outback, sing snatches of Bach’s Wachet auf harshly in Aboriginal just as Strehlow would have taught them. The Sydney Philharmonic Motet Choir sing mostly the German and English language sections, such as the moving “Try to get through the sand hills at night”.

Schultz uses the full resources of the Sydney Symphony excitingly, especially in the climactic scene six where a large, scorching dissonance heralds the arrival at the searing heat and red cliffs of Horseshoe Bend. Schultz’s stunning evocation of the harsh outback is one of the many strong points in this rich and diverse work.”  [Ian Dando, New Zealand Listener, June 18-24, 2005 Vol 199 No 3397]

“This cantata by Andrew Schultz, with libretto by Gordon Kalton Williams, is based on T.G.H. Strehlow’s autobiographical novel describing the fruitless journey by his dying father, Pastor Carl Strehlow, through Central Australia in 1922 to seek medical help. It is a curious half-spoken, half-sung musical beast. Much of the music, conducted by David Porcelijn, is evocative and descriptive, with flowing string phrases, imposing brass chords, swelling orchestral climaxes and a wide range of percussion instruments to represent the forces of nature. . The Wachet auf chorale in the final scene, combining the throaty-voiced Ntaria Ladies Choir with the more polished Sydney Philharmonia Motet Choir, is powerfully affecting and musically intriguing.” [Murray Black, The Weekend Australian, 29/1/2005]

Journey to Horseshoe Bend tells the story of a German missionary in early 20th century Australia, weaving it together with Australian Aboriginal and Christian narratives. The text is in English, German and the language of the Aranda people of central Australia. The story is of Carl Strehlow’s final journey and death in 1922. The landscape and weather patterns of the desert are conveyed in word and music.

Strehlow had made an extensive documentation of the Aranda people’s language, culture and music. The choir he founded (Ntaria Ladies Choir) sings in this performance, culminating in Bach’s chorale Wachet Auf (Sleepers Awake!) being woven in counterpoint with Strehlow’s translation of it into Aranda (Kaarerrai worlamparinyai). This is the emotional high point in the piece, which celebrates the life of Strehlow and the culture which he had embraced (at a time when it this was not the norm for white people, much less for religious ministers).

This was my first listen to this work, and as with orchestral works by Schultz I liked that balance between the epic and intimate. It also has parallels with Tippett’s A Child of our Time, in terms of combining different histories and traditions…

Another listen to Journey to Horseshoe Bend, this time I sensed more subtleties in the plot, in terms of the interweaving of Aboriginal spirituality, Biblical narraitves and stories of the pioneer life in the desert. The setting is the harshness and beauty of the Australian landscape, and there is also a sense of the layers of history, with Strehlow’s son narrating as both a boy and adult (so in present and past tense).

It’s quite interesting, and I can understand how initially this project was envisaged to be an opera and only became a cantata later. The story tells itself, but there are ambiguities here too. Dying in the desert, Strehlow feels that his God has abandoned him, and this could have ended on a dark note with him alone in the wilderness (like Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, maybe). But it ends in a celebratory mood, rejoicing in the beauty of nature, humanity and music.” [Sid James, “Journey to Horseshoe Bend,” Talk Classical, 2 and 12 October 2014]