John Musto                            Composer/Pianist

             SongNotes: Vocal Chamber Music

The Old Gray Couple is a bipartite poem written in MacLeish's late years. These are not a young person's thoughts. It is set as a duet for soprano, baritone, and piano four-hands. Archibald MacLeish died in 1982 at the age of 89, his wife Ada following two years later, aged 91. The couple in the poem have been together for fifty years. The MacLeishes were married for sixty-five.

Several musical ideas in this piece are revisited and extended in the final movement of the Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra. Indeed, there is a certain expansiveness to the duet itself. It begins with a mini overture that introduces the musical elements to follow. The pianists should think orchestrally in their approach.

The Prologue should be delivered in a neutral, narrative manner so there is a deliberate transition into character (She and He) for the Scene. (This piece inhabits a place somewhere between art song and theater, and I can imagine it being staged.) The pacing of this Scene needs to be quite elastic, to give the impression of a spontaneous conversation.

The dialogue is quite lighthearted at first: this is a couple long used to humorous sparring and apparently well-versed in their Shakespeare. At m.98, “Look, the old gray couple!” She pauses, as if catching a glimpse of herself in a mirror – there are moments when one suddenly realizes just how many years have passed. Here, the witty repartee turns to earnest reflection, and He spends the next few pages trying to articulate exactly what he means to say. However, even in the most serious moments, the atmosphere must never seem morose: these characters must always radiate warmth, wisdom, and humor.

The Old Gray Couple (1)

They have only to look at each other to laugh -

no one knows why, not even they:

something back in the lives they've lived,

something they both remember but no words can say.

They go off at an evening's end to talk

but they don't, or to sleep but they lie awake -

hardly a word, just a touch, just near,

just listening but not to hear.

Everything they know they know together -

everything, that is, but one:

their lives they've learned like secrets from each other;

their deaths they think of in the nights alone.

The Old Gray Couple (2)

She:  Love, says the poet, has no reasons.

He:  Not even after fifty years?

She:  Particularly after fifty years.

He:  What was it, then, that lured us, that still teases?

She:  You used to say my plaited hair!

He: And then you'd laugh.

She:                                       Because it wasn't plaited.

         Love had no reason so you made one up

         to laugh at.  Look!  The old, gray couple!

He:  No, to prove the addage true:

          Love has no reasons but old lovers do.

She:  And they can't tell.

He:                                        I can and so can you.  

          Fifty years ago we drew each other,

          magnetized needle toward the longing north.

          It was your naked presence that so moved me.

          It was your absolute presence that was love.

She:  Ah, was!

He:                   And now, years older, we begin to see

         absence, not presence: what the world would be

         without your footstep in the world - the garden

          empty of the radiance where you are.

She: And that's your reason? - that old lovers see

          their love because they know now what its loss will be?

He: Because, like Cleopatra in the play,

        they know there's nothing left once love's away . . .

She:  Nothing remarkable beneath the visiting moon . . .

He:  Ours is the late, last wisdom of the afternoon.

         We know that love, like light, grows dearer toward the


                                                          - Archibald MacLeish

River Songs: In his poem The Way It Is, William Staffords writes,

     There's a thread you follow. It goes among

     things that change. But it doesn't change...

     Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.

     You don't ever let go of the thread.

Rivers thread through all the songs as do contrapuntal lines. .Stafford's was a quiet voice, and the first three songs in this set inhabit that intimate atmosphere.

Song to the Trees and Streams, on a Pawnee text, is a simple set of variations, gentle and unhurried, accompanying three verses of a strophic tune.

Ask Me, a bluesy reference to Schubert's Auf dem Flusse, shares with that song the observation that the water's frozen surface belies what might be happening beneath.

Quo Vadis is the sparest of the four. It must come from a place of stillness and wonder: what is it to be of, and yet not of the world?

After all this introspection, a simple V of V ushers in the expansive language of Walt Whitman in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. Marked Exuberantly, this piece must dance in celebration and awe at the grandeur of the Hudson. I used this tune again in the first movement of my second piano concerto.

Song to the Trees and Streams

Dark against the sky yonder distant line

Lies before us.  Trees we see, long the line of trees,

Bending, swaying in the breeze.

Bright with flashing light yonder distant line

Runs before us, swiftly runs, swift the river runs,

Winding, flowing, flowing o'er the land.

Hark, a sound, yonder distant sound

Comes to greet us, singing comes, soft the river's song,

Rippling gently beneath the trees.

- Pawnee

Ask Me

Some time when the river is ice ask me

mistakes I have made. Ask me whether

what I have done is my life. Others

have come in their slow way into

my thought, and some have tried to help

or to hurt: ask me what difference

their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.

You and I can turn and look

at the silent river and wait. We know

the current is there, hidden; and there

are comings and goings from miles away

that hold the stillness exactly before us.

What the river says, that is what I say.

- William Stafford

Quo Vadis

Sometimes I choose a cloud and let it

cross the sky floating me away.

Or a bird unravels its song and carries me

as it flies deeper and deeper into the woods.

Is there a way to be gone and still

belong? Travel that takes you home?

Is that life? – to stand by a river and go.

- William Stafford

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

Ah, what can be more stately to me than mast-hemmed Manhattan?

River and sunset and scallop-edg'd waves of floodtide?

Gorgeous clouds of the sunset! Drench with your splendor me!

Stand up, tall masts of Manahatta! Stand up! Beautiful hills of Brooklyn!

Flow on, river! Flow with the flood tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!

Fly on, sea birds! Fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air!

Receive the summer sky, you water,

and faithfully hold it till all downcast eyes have time to take it from you!

We fathom you not – we love you. You furnish your parts toward eternity,

Great and small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

- Walt Whitman

Another Place (for soprano and String Quartet) see Volume 6.

The Book of Uncommon Prayer

The Book of Uncommon Prayer is a title borrowed from the handsome volume of poetry by poet/novelist Katherine Mosby.  The poem are short, eloquent meditations, exhortations, and uncompromising glimpses of the self in which she formulates, in her own words, “A form of prayer broad enough to include people who can't name their god.”  Ms. Mosby's poems provided me with portals to related poems, and with an adhesive to bind the cycle together.  There is no through line in the piece: the juxtaposition of texts is purely associative.  This cycle is thus a meditation on a meditation, touching on some of the things for which we pray: sacred, secular, and seemingly quite profane. It is written for vocal quartet (SATB) and piano.  

The Confitebor is two verses from Psalm 42, but appears here in Latin because it is part of the opening prayers of the Ordinary of the Mass.  Its last line, “Why are thou sad, my soul, and why dost thou trouble me?” and that of Bleach my bones “Let one day the shadow lift that binds my soul to sadness” intersect at a fundamental unease in the human condition.

Teach me the beauty and I Stop Writing the Poem stand in stark contrast to each other, the one describing an inner wilderness, the other domestic routine, but there is a lesson learned in both.  The emptiness of the self is echoed in the emptiness of the shirt, arms in a folded embrace, foreshadowing the death of the poet's husband from a long illness.

Help me to laugh and Old Photograph share laughing as a theme, but the laughter of MacLeish's young woman (his wife Ada, an operatic soprano) appears forced.  She seems to be saying to the lens, “Ne me touchez pas”, the first words of Melisande to Golaud in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande.  The song is made from musical snippets of the opera.  The couple alluded to in the poem, Gerald and Sara Murphy, were wealthy arts patrons (Gerald being an accomplished painter) who lived for a time as expatriates in a chalet in Cap d'Antibes that they dubbed “Villa America”. They regularly played host to Picasso, Hemingway, John Dos Passos and his wife, the Fitzgeralds and the MacLeishes, and many other creative luminaries of the early twentieth century.  

Archibald MacLeish's The Two Priests and Music and Drum are two poems put together in one setting.  The anti-clerical, anti-establishment tone is refreshing, coming from a lawyer who served as assistant director of the Office of War Information from 1942-1943. MacLeish also served as assistant secretary of state for cultural and public affairs and wrote speeches for Franklin Roosevelt.

The decidedly secular exhortations of Let sing the bedsprings serve as prelude to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's lusty, beat hallucination, San Jose Symphony Reception (In Flagrante delicto).  Lawrence Ferlinghetti was friends with San Francisco Symphony director George Cleve for twenty years. Cleve invited him to an after-party following a concert for what Ferlinghetti referred to as the 'donor class'. This poem was his response. The music veers from quasi-Liszt through fractured Bach, to a sly allusion to a Brahms cello sonata. This scene well could be a circle in a present-day Inferno, its frustrated denizens forever on the make.

Take Hands, on a poem by Laura Riding, provides a moment of respite and a glimmer of hope.

Two poems of journey follow: For I have come so long is accompanied by variations over a repeating 12-note bass figure, suggesting weary travel, never arriving. In contrast, Calypso is a gentle song of anticipation and homecoming, complete with an instructive moral at the end. The poet supplies accent marks in the text, sometimes on unexpected syllables to insure an island lilt.

The next three poems share the grave as their subject, albeit in very different ways.  Much of Kenneth Patchen's poetry speaks of the horrors of war, and Breathe on the Living was penned during or just after World War II.  It is set as a chorale.  Archibald MacLeish's Words to Be Spoken is inscribed, “For Baoth Wiborg, son of Gerald and Sara Murphy, who died in New England in his sixteenth year and a tree was planted there.”  He died in 1935 of meningitis. Mark Strand's brilliantly nihilistic Some Last Words, which begins with a rude mangling of one of Jesus' parables, is a wry allusion to the Seven Last Words of Christ.  

Hope, and the opening music returns in Angels have I none and The Phoenix Prayer, two poems by Katherine Mosby, the latter being the last poem in the volume.  

As the piece began with a standard prayer, it ends with Keep Watch, with text taken from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.  A short postlude recalls some earlier musical thoughts, but ruminates predominantly on the initial question, “Why are thou sad, my soul, and why dost thou trouble me?”  

1. Confitebor                                        

Confitebor tibi in cithara,                         

Deus, Deus meus:                              

Quare tristis est,                              

Anima mea,                                   

Et quare conturbas me?                         




[I will praise Thee upon the harp,               

O God, my God:                              

Why art thou sad, my soul,                    

And why dost thou trouble me?]                    


2. Teach me the beauty

Teach me the beauty

of my emptiness:

the white sky

not even a crow

will mark with its

jagged flight

or fierce cry.

Fill the hollows

of my ribs with wind

until they ring

like drained glasses

rubbed into song.

               - Katherine Mosby

3. I Stop Writing the Poem

I stop writing the poem

to fold the clothes.  No matter who lives

or who dies, I'm still a woman.

I'll always have plenty to do.

I bring the arms of his shirt

together.  Nothing can stop

our tenderness.  I'll get back

to the poem.  I'll get back to being

a woman.  But for now,

there's a shirt, a giant shirt

in my hands, and somewhere a small girl

standing next to her mother

watching to see how it's done.

               - Tess Gallagher

4. Help me to laugh  

Help me to laugh

with so much heart

I shake the trees

and tremble the quiet

pools.  Surprise

the old carp

and warblers

with my joy.

Multiply my delights

till they surround

me like an echo


in a gorge.

- Katherine Mosby

5. Old Photograph

There she is.  At Antibes I'd guess

by the pines, the garden, the sea shine.

She's laughing.  Oh, she always laughed

at cameras.  She'd laugh and run

before that devil in the lens could catch her.

He's caught her this time though: look at her

eyes – her eyes aren't laughing.

There's no such thing as a fragrance in a photograph

but this one seems to hold a fragrance –

fresh-washed gingham in a summer wind.

Old?  Oh, thirty maybe.  Almost thirty.

This would have been the year I went to Persia –

they called it Persia then – Shiraz,

Bushire, the Caspian, Isfahan.

She sent me the news in envelopes lined in blue.

The children were well.  The Murphys were angels:

they had given her new potatoes as sweet as peas

on a white plate under the linden tree.

She was singing Melisande with Croiza –

“mes longs cheveux.”  She was quite, quite well.

I was almost out of my mind with longing for her . . .

There she is that summer in Antibes –


              with frightened eyes.

                    - Archibald MacLeish

6. The Two Priests                         

Man in the West                              

Man in the East                              

Man lives best                              

Who loves life least,                         

Says the Priest in the West.

Man in the flesh                              

Man in the ghost                         

Man lives best                              

Who fears death most,                    

Says the Priest in the East.

Man in the West                              

Man in the East                              

Man in the flesh                              

Man in the ghost                         

Man lives best

Who loves life most,                         

Who fears death least,                    

Says Man to the Priest                    

In the East, in the West.                    

                                                - Archibald MacLeish

7. Let sing the bedsprings

Let sing the bedsprings

the choirboys

and mating cats.

Ring all the bells

and raise the blinds:

Let this feeling


and swell the room

with light

                    - Katherine Mosby

8. San Jose Symphony Reception (in flagrante delicto)

The bald man in plaid playing the harpsichord

        stopped short and sidled over

                                                       to the sideboard

      and copped a piece of Moka

                                                   on a silver plate

      and slid back and started playing again

           some kind of Hungarian rhapsodate

    while the lady in the green eyeshades

              leaned over him exuding

                                                     admiration and lust

Half-notes danced & tumbled

                                                out of his instrument

     exuding a faint odor of

                                          chocolate cake

In the corner I was taking

                               a course in musical destruction

    from the dark lady cellist

            who bent over me with her bow unsheathed

                   and proceeded to saw me in half

As a consequence my pants fell right off

        revealing a badly bent trombone which

             even the first flutist

                    who had perfect embouchure

                                             couldn't straighten out

                    - Lawrence Ferlinghetti

9. Take Hands

Take hands.

There is no love now.

But there are hands.

There is no joining now,

But a joining has been

Of a fastening of fingers

And their opening.

More than the clasp even, the kiss

Speaks loneliness,

How we dwell apart,

And how love triumphs in this.

                    - Laura Riding

10. For I have come so long

For I have come

so long without

a sign

into my path

shed moments

like the shake

of leaves

in handfuls

ripe and random,

a little grace

the comfort

of this gift.

                    - Katherine Mosby

11. Calypso

Dríver drive fáster and máke a good rún

Down the Spríngfield Line únder the shíning sún.

Flý like an áeroplane, don't pull up shórt

Till you bráke for Grand Céntral Státion New Yórk.

For thére in the míddle of thát waiting-háll

Should be stánding the óne that Í love best of áll.

If he's nót there to méet me when Í get to tówn,

I'll stánd on the síde-walk with téars rolling dówn.

For hé is the óne that I lóve to look ón,

The ácme of kíndness and pérfectión.

He présses my hánd and he sáys he loves mé,

Which I fínd an admiráble pecúliaritý.

The wóods are bright gréen on both sídes of the líne;

The trées have their lóves though they're dífferent from mine.  

But the póor fat old bánker in the sún-parlor cár

Has nó one to lóve him excépt his cigár.

If Í were the héad of the Chúrch or the Státe,

I'd pówder my nóse and just téll them to wáit.

For lóve's more impórtant and pówerful thán

Éven a príest or a póliticián.

                    - W. H. Auden

12. Chorale: Breathe on the Living

Breathe on the living,

They are numb.

The dead have tidings,

These have none.

Stones roll off graves,

Men rise not.

Your Son was saved,

Ours cry out.

Send down a light,

All's dark here.

And prove not your love,

As men have done.

                    - Kenneth Patchen

13. Words To Be Spoken

for Baoth Wiborg son of Gerald and Sara Murphy who died in

New England in his sixteenth year and a tree was planted there

O shallow ground

That over ledges

Shoulders the gentle year,

Tender O shallow

Ground your grass is

Sisterly touching us:

Your trees are still:

They stand at our side in the

Night lantern

Sister O shallow

Ground you inherit

Death as we do.

Your year also –

The young face,

The voice – vanishes.

Sister O shallow


            let the silence of

Green be between us

And the green sound.

                    - Archibald MacLeish

14. Some Last Words


It is easier for a needle to pass through a camel

Than for a poor man to enter a woman of means.

Just go to the graveyard and ask around.


Eventually, you slip outside, letting the door

Bang shut on your latest thought.  What was it, anyway?

Just go to the graveyard and ask around.


“Negligence” is the perfume I love.

O Fedora. Fedora.  If you want any,

Just go to the graveyard and ask around.


The bones of the buffalo, the rabbit at sunset,

The wind and its double, the tree, the town . . .

Just go to the graveyard and ask around.


If you think good things are on their way

And the world will improve, don't hold your breath.

Just go to the graveyard and ask around.


You over there, why don't you ask if this is the valley

Of limitless blue, and if we are its prisoners?

Just go to the graveyard and ask around.


Life is a dream that is never recalled when the sleeper awakes.

If this is beyond you, Magnificent One,

Just go to the graveyard and ask around.

                    - Mark Strand

15. Angels have I none                         

Angels have I none                              

nor hope enough                              

to fill this length of day                         

yet will my heart                                   


at a swell of geese                              


and the bells                                        

dispersing evensong                                        

like smoke     

in the thickening air.

                                   - Katherine Mosby

16. Keep Watch

Keep watch

with those who work,

or watch,

or weep this night,

and give your angels

charge over those who sleep.

Now that we come

to the setting of the sun,

and our eyes behold

the vesper light,

stay with us,

for evening is at hand

and our work is done.

Yours is the day,

yours also the night;

darkness is not dark

to you.

Guide us waking,

and guard us sleeping;

that awake

we may watch,

and asleep

we may rest in peace.

                    - The Book of Common Prayer


Volumes 1-3

Volumes 4-6


Bleach my bones

Bleach my bones

and twine my hair

when I am gome

feed my flesh to pigeons

or jackals

or the old men

who need to warm themselves

but first grant me

this: let one dy

the shadow lift

that binds

my soul to sadness.

     - Katherine Mosby

Music and Drum

When men turn mob

Drums throb:

When mod turns men

Music again.

When sould secome Church

Drums beat the search:

When Church becomes souls

Sweet music tolls.

When State is the master

Drums beat disaster:

When master is man

Music can.

Each to be one,

Each to be whole,

Body and soul,

Music's begun.

The Phoenix Prayer

A gentle stirring

like the flutters

of birds

filling the garden

like vowels

swelling in the mouth

tentative kisses

these unfinished prayers:

Do not break my heart.