Eric Whitacre: The Seal Lullaby
Shortly after attending the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop in 2004, Eric Whitacre was soon contacted by a big film studio asking for a meeting. The studio were looking into creating a new classic animated film based on Rudyard Kipling’s The White Seal. After reading the Kipling’s poem Whitacre was overwhelmed with emotions and began to write:
“I was struck so deeply by those first beautiful words, and a simple sweet Disney-esque song just came gushing out of me. I wrote it down as quickly as I could, had my wife record it while I accompanied her at the piano, and then dropped it off at the studio.”
However, Whitacre heard nothing back from the studio:
“I didn’t hear anything from them for weeks and weeks, and I began to despair. Did they hate it? Was it too melodically complex? Did they even listen to it? Finally, I called them, begging to know the reason they had rejected my tender little song. ‘Oh’ said the exec, ‘we decided to make Kung Fu Panda instead’.”
After finding out this news, The Seal Lullaby remained untouched for some time, with Whitacre primarily using it to get his baby to sleep. In 2008, the Towne Singers commissioned a new choral arrangement of The Seal Lullaby, which has given it a new lease of life. The piece is dedicated to Stephen Schwartz.
The story of the White Seal by Kipling is poignant, beautiful and not condescending to children. The opening lines start with the mother seal singing to her young pup.
Oh! Hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us,
And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us,
At rest in the hollows that rustle between.
Where billow meets billow, then soft be thy pillow,
Oh weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
Asleep in the arms of the slow swinging seas!
The opening choral fluctuations paired with the harp/piano flourishes adds that classic Whitacre magic at the start of the song. After the introduction the upper voices sing the first two lines, representing the mother seal. The lower voices enter soon after, with the voices interlocking and every so often uniting. A lower voice solo sings out as the voices work together to tell the listener this story.
Whitacre’s writing here is tonal throughout, with some of his signature cluster chords placed throughout. These dissonances are nuanced and do not detract you from the words. The dissonances provide colour to the rich textures that Whitacre has written. The sparkling piano/harp accompaniment pierces the texture to create a really exciting effect. The song ends like it began, with voices, but no words, and the magical accompaniment.
Eric Whitacre’s The Seal Lullaby remains one of his popular choral works.The soft style and accessible lyrics makes it a favourite amongst amateur choirs around the world.
Ⓒ Alex Burns