John Musto                            Composer/Pianist



Two by Frost In Nothing Gold Can Stay, the poet's thoughts veer from the budding of a leaf to the fall of man in eight short lines. It is a meditation on impermanence, plainspoken in language, virtuosic in execution. Yet it imparts no feeling of regret or resignation – but simply offers an observation, a statement of fact, and should be performed with that in mind. The music mirrors the text (in the original high version) as it alternates bright sharp keys with less radiant neutral ones.

Taking Gertrude Stein's famous line “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” as a springboard, Frost treats us to some dry New England humor in The Rose Family. The apple, pear, and plum are indeed members of the Rosaceae genus, of which he feigns ignorance. All the orneriness is set on its head in the last line, as the whole harangue becomes a love song. Stein famously said of her poem "I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years." Take note of Frost's humorous use of monorhyme as he gently parodies this celebrated poem.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature's first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf's a flower,

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

The Rose Family

The rose is a rose,

And was always a rose.

But the theory now goes

That the apple's a rose,

And the pear is, and so's

The plum, I suppose.

The dear only knows

What will next prove a rose.

You, of course, are a rose -

But were always a rose.

               - Robert Frost

Canzonettas are three settings of Elizabethan poetry. Westron Wynde, or Western Wind in contemporary usage, is an early sixteenth century lament, whose origins may trace back even further. In four short lines, it turns from plaintive lyric to prayerful crie de coeur. The poet invokes the zephyr, or west wind, which will bring the spring rains and rebirth.

The introduction was borrowed from the opening bars of my first piano concerto, which was at the time, still a collection of sketches. The pianist should think of a pair of clarinets, as scored in the concerto.

All Night by the Rose, with its sly, offbeat accompaniment, should be sung to the sound of a lute, with the cockiness of youth, yet not without elegance.

The Silver Swan poem has been attributed, if arguably, to Orlando Gibbons, who set it as a madrigal. It refers to the legend that the swan sings only at the moment of its death. Yet before its last breath, this swan takes a moment to comment on the state of the world. This song should begin in a regal but subdued manner; for the pianist, flutter pedal with una corda will produce the hushed, otherworldly quality needed under the “Farewell, all joys!” section, setting up the last line, to be delivered with dignified resignation, and without bitterness.

Western Wind

Western wind when will thou blow

The small rain down can rain

Christ if my love were in my arms

And I in my bed again

All Night by the Rose

All night by the rose, rose,

All night by the rose I lay;

Dared I not the rose steal,

And yet I bare the flower away.

The Silver Swan

The silver swan, who, living, had no note,

When Death approached, unlocked her silent throat,

Leaning her breast upon the reedy shore,

Thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:

“Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!

More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”

Enough Rope offers three short poems by that most famous doyenne of the Algonquin Round Table, Dorothy Parker. Known for her quick wit, biting sarcasm, and pithy sayings (“If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”) she was an unsparing observer of New York society.

In Social Note the piano supplies the urgency of the message and the background chatter, perhaps of a cocktail party, while one of the wiser guests gives some sage advice to a younger reveler. The accompaniment needs little to no pedal.

No stranger to suicide attempts, Parker mulls over several methods in Résumé.  Her wearily deadpan delivery in this poem suggested a blues setting. A bit of pitch bending is in order and a steady tempo is required.

The set ends on an uncharacteristically elegiac note with The Sea. The waves gently rock in the piano while sea birds cry from above.

Social Note

Lady, lady should you meet

One whose ways are all discreet,

One who murmurs that his wife

Is the lodestar of his life,

One who keeps assuring you

That he never was untrue,

Never loved another one . . .

Lady, lady, better run!


Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren't lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

The Sea

Who lay against the sea, and fled,

     Who lightly loved the wave,

Shall never know, when he is dead,

     A cool and murmurous grave.

But in a shallow pit shall rest

     For all eternity,

And bear the earth upon the breast

     That once had worn the sea.


               - Dorothy Parker

Langston Hughes, a prominent participant in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, found his voice in the cadences of jazz and the blues. I was taken with these four poems because they read like song lyrics.

In Silhouette, the tempo marking should be followed scrupulously, and the song delivered in character. The breezy ragtime accompaniment against the sinister subject matter makes the effect. The Dixie quote should be suitably jingoistic and turn ice cold at the end of the line.

Litany is modelled on Strauss's Morgen!, with gospel undertones. For this song to work, the singer must keep an emotional distance. Too slow a tempo robs it of its rhythmic integrity. Also, for the singer, there is no need for a glottal onset anywhere in this song. As a side note, I always find it curious when this song is performed in a religious context, as the poet pointedly says: “Those who expect No love from above”.

The piano part of Island was also taken from the first piano concerto sketch (third movement), its undulating sixteenth notes mimicking the cresting of the waves. In spite of the shifting meters of the accompaniment, the singer is always in 6/8, and should feel each bar in two. The song need not be performed too fast to make an effect. Do follow the pedal markings.

Could Be is a straight-ahead blues in a written-out swing time. Again, not too fast and lean into the syncopations. Hastings Street is in Detroit, Lenox Avenue in Harlem, 18th and Vine in Kansas City, Fifth and Mound in St. Louis, and Rampart Street in New Orleans.


Southern gentle lady,

Do not swoon.

They've just hung a black man

In the dark of the moon.

They've hung a black man  

To a roadside tree

In the dark of the moon

For the world to see

How Dixie protects

Its white womanhood.

Southern gentle lady,

Be good! Be good!


Gather up

In the arms of your pity

The sick, the depraved,

the desperate, the tired,

All the scum of our weary city

Gather up

In the arms of your pity.

Gather up

In the arms of your love -

Those who expect

No love from above.


Wave of sorrow

Do not drown me now:

I see the island

Still ahead somehow.

I see the island

And its sands are fair:

Wave of sorrow

Take me there.

Could Be

Could be Hastings Street,

Or Lenox Avenue,

Could be Eighteenth & Vine

And still be true.

Could be Fifth & Mound,

Could be Rampart.

When you pawned my watch

You pawned my heart.

Could be you love me,

Could be [that] you don't.

Might be that you'll come back,

Like as not you won't.

Hastings Street is weary,

Also Lenox Avenue.

Any place is dreary

Without my watch and you.

               - Langston Hughes

Though Recuerdo takes its title from the second song in the set, all three are about remembrance. They were written in 1988 at the height of the AIDS crisis.

Echo is an incantation and must create an atmosphere of hushed wonder – is it a dream or a visitation? Is an echo the sound or the memory of a sound? The falling minor third ticks away the late hour and must be played in strict time. At “O dream how sweet” a slightly slower tempo and intimate sound is required. “Yet come to me in dreams” is the feverish height of the incantation. The crescendo at bar 63 is subtle and should be gauged with the pianist to peak at bar 64 in the tempo sostenuto. The song should end exactly as it began, in strict time, suggesting a cyclical ritual – does it occur on one night or every night?

Recuerdo (I remember) by Edna Millay, appeared in Poetry magazine in May of 1919. Millay was a denizen of the bohemian Greenwich Village scene at the time. This recollection is possibly about an evening she spent with her then paramour, Nicaraguan poet Salomón de la Selva - hence the Spanish title. Ragtime was very much alive during Millay's youth, hence the setting. The poem is a gift to composers because it furnishes them with a hook – in popular music, a recurring, ear-catching musical phrase. This hook, however, has a subtle change in each repetition: the word 'ferry' drops from major 6th, to a major 7th, to an octave as the lovers grow more fatigued. The tempo needs to be supple to permit a conversational cadence, but always in the larger scheme of a gradual slowing down until the memory dissolves.

Last Song is the final verse from a longer poem, After the Persian, published in the New Yorker in November of 1951. Dedicated to the memory of Jeffery French, a friend who succumbed to the AIDS epidemic in 1988, the song is a valediction. The music begins haltingly, in unfinished phrases, like so many unfinished lives. The words should sound extemporaneous. The breath mark im m.28 is solely for the sound of the piano to dissipate: if too much time is taken, the sense of the last line will be broken.


Come to me in the silence of the night;

    Come in the speaking silence of a dream;

Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright

    As sunlight on a stream;

        Come back in tears,

O memory, hope, love of finished years.

O dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,

    Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,

Where souls brimfull of love abide and meet;

    Where thirsting longing eyes

        Watch the slow door

That opening, letting in, lets out no more.

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live

    My very life again though cold in death:

Come back to me in dreams, that I may give

    Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:

        Speak low, lean low,

As long ago, my love, how long ago.

                - Christina Rossetti


We were very tired, we were very merry -

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.

It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable -

But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,

We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon; And

The whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry -

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;

[And] you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,

From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;

And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,

And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry -

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.

We hailed “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,

And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;

And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,

And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

                   - Edna St. Vincent Millay

Last Song [from After the Persian]

Goodbye, goodbye!

There was so much to love, I could not love it all;

I could not love it enough.

Some things I overlooked, and some I could not find.

Let the crystal clasp them

When you drink your wine, in autumn.

                               - Louise Bogan


The poems of Quiet Songs touch on losing and finding – home, friends, faith, life itself.

In that regard, maggie & millie & molly & may seemed the perfect prelude. Lightly pedaled means hardly any: highlight the dotted eighth notes as anchors. Also, a steady tempo will differentiate 6/8 from 4/8. Each character needs to be individuated, and the pianist can help with that. Their reactions are as important as what they find.

The text of Intermezzo is an entry from my wife's diary written when she was very young. It was in response to the death of someone close to her. The spare accompaniment reflects the simplicity and directness of the language.

Quiet Song in Time of Chaos is the full title of Eugene O'Neill's poem, and bears the dedication 'To Carlotta on her birthday'.  

He and Carlotta Monterey O'Neill were married from 1929 until his death in 1953. Dated December 28th, 1940, the poem was written as chaos was brewing, though a year before the U.S. entry into World War II. In contrast to the turmoil and disillusionment portrayed in his plays, this poem speaks of home, peace, and quiet. In fact, in an unpublished fragment of another poem, O'Neill describes himself as “a quiet man, in love with quiet”. The song is not without turbulence: the poet borrows the metaphor of approaching winter and the whiteness of 'Time's hair'. It is after the line “Where is here?” that I chose to leave out “But you understand.” Musical exigencies must take precedence over the text – an approach that would make some poets howl. I felt that bringing back the music of the opening bars would close the door on the preceding tumult and express the intimacy of that line without having to say it, creating a more telling dramatic moment. Sometimes music speaks louder than words.

In another birthday poem of a very different stripe, Edna Millay turns a jaundiced eye to the church in To Jesus on His Birthday.  The opening bars present two ideas – tolling bells and an ersatz hymn tune. At one point they both sound cacophonously together. The plainchant quote at the end is from the Stabat Mater:

          By the cross her station keeping

          Stood the mournful mother weeping…

However, this song should not be delivered with anger – keep in mind to whom it is addressed.

British poet and critic Arthur Symons spent much of his time on the continent, and as many of his poems attest, was an avid sea-watcher. The ancient basilica of Santa Chiara (Saint Clare) and its cloister are in Naples, across the Tyrrhenian Sea from Sorrento. Palm Sunday (occuring a week before Easter) celebrates the story of the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem, where he is greeted by an enthusiastic crowd, spreading their garments and palm branches on the ground before him as a gesture of welcome and deference. There is a procession to the church, the palms are blessed by the clergy, and the faithful take them home as a talisman until the following year, when they are burned and used on Ash Wednesday as a memento mori.

In Palm Sunday: Naples, the narrator forgoes participation in this ritual, as he feels no welcome there. I took a decidedly more Italianate approach to this poem than the John Ireland setting – I just didn't feel the protagonist's predicament as all that dire. And that leads to another instance where I made an editorial decision at the expense of the poet for musical reasons. I felt it too early in flow of the song to introduce the bracketed lines:

     There are no palms in Santa Chiara

     To-day or any day for me.

The music explains that in the last verse.

The tempo should be unhurried, the singing bel canto, alla barcarolla.

Lullaby by Léonie Adams is another song born of the AIDS crisis. The death of the brilliant pianist and dear friend Paul Jacobs inspired this song. The poem is almost cruel in its frankness: only in the last two lines does it turn to benediction. The introduction recapitulates music from the second and third songs, texts that touch on mortality. The music hews to the text: the descending melodic lines, faltering heartbeat. The song should be sung with quiet compassion, and a calm resignation.

maggie and milly and molly and may

maggie and milly and molly and may

went down to the beach(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang

so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star

whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing

which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone

as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)

it's always ourselves we find in the sea


                    - e.e. cummings


You are with me

And I am with you

I surely would die

If that were not true.

                      - Amy Elizabeth Burton

Quiet Song


Is home.

Is peace.

Is quiet.


Is love

That sits by the hearth

And smiles into the fire,

As into a memory of happiness,

As into the eyes of quiet.


Is faith

That can be silent.

It is not afraid of silence.

It knows happiness

Is a deep pool

Of quiet.


Sadness, too,

Is quiet.

Is the earth's sadness

On autumn afternoons

When days grow short,

And the year grows old,

When frost is in the air;

And suddenly one notices

Time's hair

Has grown whiter.


Where is here?

In my heart

Within your heart

Is home.

Is peace.

Is quiet.

                     - Eugene O'Neill

Christmas Carol (To Jesus On His Birthday)

For this your mother sweated in the cold,

For this you bled upon the bitter tree:

A yard of tinsel ribbon bought and sold;

A paper wreath; a day at home for me.

The merry bells ring out, the people kneel;

Up goes the man of God before the crowd;

With voice of honey and with eyes of steel

He drones your humble gospel to the proud.

Less than the wind that blows

Are all your words to us you died to save.

O Prince of Peace!  O Sharon's dewy Rose!

How mute you lie within your vaulted grave.

The stone the angel rolled away with tears

Is back upon your mouth these thousand years.

                        - Edna St. Vincent Millay

Palm Sunday: Naples

Because it is the day of Palms,

Carry a palm for me,

Carry a palm in Santa Chiara,

And I will watch the sea.

[There are no palms in Santa Chiara

To-day or any day for me.]

I sit and watch the little sail

Lean side-ways on the sea,

The sea is blue from here to Sorrento

And the sea-wind comes to me.

I see the white clouds lift from Sorrento

And the dark sail lean upon the sea.

I have grown tired of all these things.

And what is left for me?

I have no place in Santa Chiara,

There is no peace upon the sea;

But carry a palm in Santa Chiara,

Carry a palm for me.

                         - Arthur Symons


Hush, lullay,

Your treasures all

     encrust with rust.

Your trinket pleasures


To dust.

Beneath the sapphire arch

Upon the grassy floor

Is nothing more

     To hold.

And play is over old.

Your eyes

     In sleepy fever gleam,

Your lids droop

     To their dream.

You wander late alone,

The flesh frets on the bone,

Your love fails

     In your breast.

Here is the pillow.


                         -Léonie Adams

Dove Sta Amore is named for the last poem of the set, as Ferlinghetti translates it: "Where lies love?" The question hovers over each of the songs. The first three poems are by Chicago poet Carl Sandburg.

The bluesy ambiguity of Maybe mirrors the protagonist's ambivalence toward her relationship. The tempo should be unhurried and as nonchalant as her demeanor. Note the rising thirds in "Somebody somewhere maybe..." - this figure will return as the operative question in the last song.Try to sing the entire phrase in one breath. The pianist should think of a big band brass section in the interlude. There is an urgency in the piano responses in the final section as if to coax the singer along to finish her statement. Again, "I will say yes, Maybe." in one breath.

The idea for Sea Chest began with a comment made by a friend that some relationships work despite being unequal. The woman loves the man and the man loves the sea. I broke the poem into three verses to resemble a sea chanty and imagined it cinematically: the camera focuses on the horizon, then the rocking boat comes into view. A little close and we see the couple going about their business while the sea birds cry from above. The sequence reverses in the end. "They made an old sea chest" is marked only poco forte and the breath mark is not a caesura - try not to break the sense of the line.

The Hangman at Home poses a series of questions, the answer to which is musically embeded in the introduction, as it will be articulated in the final phrase. This song is another example of using bright music to probe a dark subject. The style demands a fluidity of tempo that gives the illusion of improvisation. The key to a successful performance is to ask the questions in earnest, and not to play for comedy. As the singer poses the questions, the noose can be imagined swinging in the background (mm10-13, 54-56).The situations evoked become more and more absurd culminating in the grotesque image of the hangman over the bed of his sleeping infant. The last line, in answer to these musings, echoes the introduction, and ends with a shrug.

The image of the sleeping child reappears in the next song, How Many Little Children Sleep (poem by James Agee) which answers the preceding song with even more questions: who will be hanged and who will be the executioners? The poem is set as a gentle lullaby, an unquiet Rockabye Baby. Again, a steady tempo and an emotional distance from the subject is required.


After an initial flourish in an ambivalent G major/minor, the singer poses the titular question, Dove Sta Amore, Where Lies Love, on the same figure of rising thirds from the first song. Since so much of Ferlinghetti's poem is about riffing and rhyming, I approached it in the manner of an 18th century opera composer, repeating and rearranging lines to suit the musical needs. It is really more aria than song. It's very important to differentiate the sections marked freely and the rest in strict time. This is the only instance where I interpolated a vocalise into a poem. When the poet entreats us to “Hear love's hillsong” etc., I thought it appropriate to supply one. In this section I've written lower alternatives to some of the higher lines, which work equally as well.

In light of its challenges, do try to keep the last page in strict tempo.


MAYBE he believes me, maybe not.

Maybe I can marry him, maybe not.

Maybe the wind on the prairie,

The wind on the sea, maybe,

Somebody somewhere, maybe, can tell.

I will lay my head on his shoulder

And when he asks me I will say yes,


Sea Chest

THERE was a woman loved a man

as the man loved the sea.

Her thoughts of him were the same

as his thoughts of the sea.

They made an old sea chest for their belongings


The Hangman at Home

WHAT does the hangman think about

When he goes home at night from work?

When he sits down with his wife and

Children for a cup of coffee and a

Plate of ham and eggs, do they ask

Him if it was a good day's work

And everything went well or do they

Stay off some topics and talk about

The weather, baseball, politics

And the comic strips in the papers

And the movies?  Do they look at his

Hands when he reaches for the coffee

Or the ham and eggs?  If the little

Ones say, Daddy, play horse, here's

A rope - does he answer like a joke:

I seen enough rope for today?

Or does his face light up like a

Bonfire of joy and does he say:

It's a good and dandy world we live

In.  And if a white face moon looks

In through a window where a baby girl

Sleeps and the moon-gleams mix with

Baby ears and baby hair - the hangman -

How does he act then?  It must be easy

For him.  Anything is easy for a hangman,

I guess.

                                 - Carl Sandburg

How many little children sleep

How many little children sleep

To wake, like you, only to weep:

How many others play who will

Like you, and all men, weep and kill.

And many parents watch and say,

Where they weep, where they play,

"By all we love, by all we know,

It never shall befall them so."

But in each one the terror grows

By all he loves, by all he knows,

"Soon they must weep; soon they shall kill.

No one wills it, but all will."

But in each one the terror moves

By all he knows, by all he loves,

"Soon they will weep; soon they will kill.

No one wills it, but all will."

                            - James Agee

Dove sta amore . . .

    Dove sta amore

    Where lies love

    Dove sta amore

      Here lies love

  The ring dove love

    In lyrical delight

Hear love's hillsong

Love's true willsong

Love's low plainsong

Too sweet painsong

In passages of night

    Dove sta amore

      Here lies love

  The ring dove love

    Dove sta amore

      Here lies love

                         - Lawrence Ferlinghetti


The lyrics to Penelope were excerpted from a much larger work by Denise Lanctot about wandering. She supplied me with a rich trove of material which I then fashioned into seven songs. For those not familiar with Penelope's story, this short précis will suffice.

Penelope was the wife of Ulysses, king of Ithaca. He was enlisted to fight the Trojan War to win back Helen, who was abducted by Paris, and return her to her rightful husband Menelaus. This endeavor took ten years of fighting, and ten more of wandering before he could find his way home. In the meantime, his palace was occupied by suitors eager for the hand of Penelope. She kept them at bay by promising to choose one of them once she had finished weaving a shroud for Laertes, her father-in-law. (In this piece, the shroud is instead a coat for Odysseus.) As the suitors daily cavort and drink their way through the wine cellar, Penelope dutifully weaves by day, but undoes her work by night.

In Denise's retelling, Odysseus's travels are juxtaposed with Penelope's imaginative wanderings in which she eventually constructs a life of the mind where she is perfectly content without him, but not before a tempestuous emotional journey.

The Prologue begins with a twelve-note ostinato, wandering yet never arriving, which accompanies Penelope as she introduces herself and describes her situation. This figure will return later in the cycle. The weaving section owes much to Schubert.  

In Penelope's Lament, the protagonist sings the blues. The suitor and their entourages have taken up residence in the palace halls.

In the grazioso section they taunt her with sing-song questions which she eventually asks herself. By the last page, it is unclear whether the frank advice is coming from without or within.

The wandering bass reappears in the left hand of the opening bars on the Weaving Song. Penelope sings of silken strands as the piano weaves them into a tapestry of counterpoint. Steady tempo, not speed, and a lightness of touch at the piano is the key a successful performance.

Epithalamium, a nuptial song, is a respite, a glance back to a better time. The perpetuum mobile relaxes into a gentler pace as the weaving continues. The wanderer is still present though as the tonality shifts from key to key and the reverie eventually evaporates. Not too slow.

Reality brutally reasserts itself in The Suitors, as the usurpers cast aspersions on Penelope's mental state and the accompaniment seethes underneath. A propulsive but steady tempo will keep singer and pianist together, especially when the two fall out of sync in mm. 27-30, 53-56.

Finally, in Odyssey, Penelope invites us into the world she's created and speaks unguardedly of her inner life. The piano, marked luminous, provides an ecstatic atmosphere for her revelations. The marking con pedale should be taken advisedly so as not to accumulate too much sound and obscure the rhythmic underpinning. This song is the apotheosis of her spinning thoughts. As she sings of her fantastical journey, wisps of previous songs fly by as the pace gradually relents, and the original twelve-note wandering motive reminds us of the emotional distance that's been travelled.

The previous song leads directly via a homecoming of V-I into the final section, Penelope's Song. Since it is a homecoming song, (but considering the text, really an anti-homecoming song) I thought I would cast it with a country and western flavor, as so many songs in that genre embrace that subject. A gentle guitar plucking accompaniment lopes throughout. The back phrasing is written into the vocal line, so a steady tempo is required.

1. Prologue

From the wanderer's cup I drink

Me, Penelope

The ever-patient wife.

Traveling in my mind

Outwitting place and time

Never far behind

The world's greatest wanderer

My husband,


Appearances can deceive:

As I sit here and I weave

And unweave this coat.

As I sit here and I spin

Then unspin this golden thread.

They all think I'm mad.

“She's gone off her head!”

As you did when we parted

When I smiled at you and said:

Absence is a lack of imagination.

Come, dearest husband,

It's time for bed.

2. Penelope's Lament

Life is hell when you're gone!

Pious vultures circle and descend

Ladies in waiting

Betray and befriend.

Crones and crows

Wearing widow black

Gleefully sympathetic

Swoop round to attack.

Life is hell when you're gone!

I'm pecked to death with questions:

Where is Ulysses?

How is Ulysses?

Is he ever coming back?

Where is Ulysses?

How is Ulysses?

Did he send a single postcard:

“Wishing you were here?”

(Where is Ulysses?)

That no good hero husband!

(Where is Ulysses?)

Your bed is getting cold!

Your skin is getting dry!

Your suitors are fed up!

Yet you sit idly by!

We really didn't mean to upset you,

Did we upset you, Penny dear?

Let him go from your life

For he's taken to wife

A map, a sail, his favorite shoes.

Helen of Troy, not you, he pursues.

3. Weaving Song

Loneliness unravels

Distance disappears

When I weave this coat for you,


I wander as I weave and weave

And weave and wander more

My journey, love, will never end

'Til you wander through my door.

Imagining this string

An endless silken strand

Cleaves my heart to yours

In some far and foreign land.

A road is like a thread

A filament of flight.

I'm a high-wire wanderer

On the edge of sheer delight.

Suddenly you awake

A sense that I am there:

A breath, a thread, a whisper,

A strand of golden hair.

4. Epithalamium

In my father's orchard

Beneath a lilac tree

Love unfurled

When you pulled my ribbon free.

My braid came undone

Buttons parted ways

The fire of your promises

Set my skin ablaze.

I drank your thirsty kisses

Full-bodied wine

Imagining with every sip

You'd be forever mine.

And when it was over

You whispered in my ear

“You are all my world

Whether far or near."

5. The Suitors

I can see from my balcony

The meddlers' tête-à- tête

Like a hive of angry hornets

In a furious minuet.

Their droning gossip

Stings the very air

Filling my ears

With venomous despair.

Penelope has come undone

Unspun like so much thread.

Her mind's an empty bobbin

Whirling in an empty head.

Where do you suppose she goes in her mind?

6. Odyssey

On the flap of a lapel I fly.

Wind-swept coasts

Sighing hills

Deserts long abandoned by the sea.

Through a buttonhole I dive.

Sargasso green

Azure Aegean

Setting sail with half a sleeve.

My compass?

A thimble of stars

Stitched in a seamless sky.

I nap on a sun-baked rock.

Swim with dolphin and seal

Rip out a less-than-perfect seam.

Highjack a cloud.

(Navigate the Straits

Of Woe and Jealousy)

I slip into a pocket

An olive grove

Where we once kissed.

Snow begins to fall.

I quickly finish off a hem

The day's work done

Through the needle's eye

In a field of stones

A young girl sings a song of me

For you:

7. Penelope's Song

Don't hurry home, love

Don't hurry home.

I'm not finished

Spinning and unspinning

Wings of spun gold, love

Stories never told, love

Don't hurry home, love

Don't hurry home.

While you're away

I invent and re-invent

The world.

Don't hurry home, love

Don't hurry home.

I'm not finished

Spinning and unspinning

Steeds of pure light, love

Riding through the night, love

Don't hurry home, love

Don't hurry home.

Depart to alight

And alight to depart

I'm in love with beginnings.

Landing and leaving

Weaving unweaving

This nomad's heart

Needs to start

Love's journey again.

Don't hurry home, love.

Don't hurry home.

While you're away

I travel to the earth's

Endless end.

                             - Denise Lanctot

The Scottish Songs were written for the birthday of Nicholas Russell, and old friend from our sojourn in Glasgow, when my wife sang with the Scottish Opera.  This project gave me the opportunity to make the acquaintance of several superb poets from Scotland.  Pronunciation for Langsyne, When Life Was Bonnie can benefit from consultation with a Scot. Since all the poets (except Alexander Anderson) were very much with us at the time, I'll let them speak for themselves.

Spell of the Bridge

These words were inspired by the Faery Bridge in the small town of Dunblane, where the author grew up.  The fragile footbridge arcs over the Allan Water, a fast-flowing river which rises in the Ochil Hills of Perthshire and joins the River Forth near Stirling.

                          - Helen Lamb

Atheist Lighting a Candle in Albi Cathedral*

The poem is dedicated to an acquaintance of mine, a writer, who died far too young. We did not know one another very well, and my discomfort with entering a church as a non-believer provided a parallel for the guilt I felt about mourning his death. He was also the person for whom I wished to light the candle in the first place. I'm not Catholic (though there is a sublimated streak of Catholicism in my family), but I appreciated the beauty of the cathedral, and felt attracted in the moment to the consolations on offer.  

                         – Frances Leviston

[*The accompaniment is taken from the plainchant Salve Regina. – J.M.]


My father used to buy flowers for my mother after they'd had a row and he wanted to get back into her good books. The flowers made her furious. Many years later, when I was involved in a protracted sexual affair, I longed for those silly romantic symbols that so annoyed my mother. If you have an illicit relationship, the other person may not bring gifts. Gifts mean money has to be spent and someone may notice. All the same, I did want a present. I loved gardening. I suggested he bring me a plant out of his garden, something I could nurture and grow. He said he would, but he forgot. In the end, it wasn't a cold he gave me, but another infection. I forgave everything and blamed myself. I was profoundly, pathetically and pointlessly in love. He and I were stuck in that situation for four years. But you learn. Eventually, you learn.  

                         – Helena Nelson

Not that it's loneliness was written during a year I spent in a damp farm cottage looking out to sea. It sat just above a string of little rocky beaches and exposed coastal path a few miles out of St Andrews on the East Coast of Scotland. I was studying for a Masters in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University there. My brother, Adam, two years younger than me, had died just before I moved there and, although it was a magical year of reading and writing with inspiring poets and tutors, it was a very sad time too and I hope this poem has that detached feeling of watching the world but not being part of it.

I wanted to describe a listless kind of loneliness, where time goes by slowly and anything can be stared at for minutes or hours, it doesn't matter which. But really, I hope this poem (which is really a series of linked haiku) speaks for itself.

                         - Chloe Morrish

Langsyne, when life was bonnie

Alexander Anderson (1845-1909) was born in Kirkconnel, a small town in southwestern Scotland.  As a teenager, he became a surfaceman, maintaining the roadbeds of the railway.  In his few leisure hours, he studied French, German, Italian and Spanish in order to read the great literary works of those languages.  He eventually obtained the post of Chief Librarian at the University of Edinburgh.

                         John Musto

Driven Home

I was driving a friend and fellow editor back home to Glasgow from Edinburgh, along the M8 motorway or freeway. The publishers we had just met in Edinburgh had been unimpressed by our idea for an anthology of contemporary 'Scots-Irish writing' by descendants of poor Irish migrants who had originally come to work in Scotland's coal, iron and engineering industries. Those descendants had, over the generations, become Scottish novelists, dramatists and poets. We talked over our disappointment as we drove.

After a while I noticed that my friend had fallen asleep. The motorway winds through the industrial landscape where my father's family lived and worked. In fact, my grandfather was killed in a mining accident in 1932, in a pit only a mile south of the speeding traffic. Now the road is landscaped with trees, but I remember how black and bleak it looked when I was young. The names of the villages in the poem evoke memories of that now vanished scene, and of those who labored there to make their children's future brighter than their own. What might they think now about what we have done with the life that they gave?      

                         - James McGonigal

Spell of the Bridge

Hold the wish on your tongue

As you cross

What the bridge cannot hear

Cannot fall

For the river would carry

Your hopes to the sea

To the net of a stranger

To the silt bed of dreams

Hold the wish on your tongue

As you cross

And on the far side

Let the wish go first

- Helen Lamb

Atheist Lighting a Candle in Albi Cathedral

It seems to matter

I use a Zippo,

not the taper's monkish flame.

It seems to matter I choose the white

over red before asking the difference,

that I love the fresco's talented horse

though couldn't name his rider –

but what's not authentic at the Virgin's feet?

She knows I am not a bad person, just troubled.

She knows the wick is burning.

- Frances Leviston


The affair was all coming and going

in snatched half-hours.

Not seeing the need

he never brought flowers.

Bring me a plant,

I asked – a forget-me-not

out of your garden.

He forgot

and came empty-handed,

sorry, blue-eyed.

I don't need flowers,

I said (lied).

He was always leaving.

Once he gave me his cold.

I cherished it, wishing

I had him to hold.

On balance, though

one thing was good:

he told me the truth.

I knew where I stood.

In my green courtyard

for hours, days, years

I stood where I knew,

waiting for flowers.

- Helena Nelson

Not That It's Loneliness

not that it's loneliness

just one black bird

in the blue-grey sky

not that it's loneliness

just standing in the garden

waiting for snow

not that it's loneliness

just the sound of a jet

behind everything

not that it's loneliness

just sitting on the wall

between clouds and sea

not that it's loneliness

just a hole in the door frame

where the mouse went

- Chloe Morrish

Langsyne, when life was bonnie

Langsyne*, when life was bonnie, (long ago)

   An' a' the skies were blue,

When ilka* thocht took blossom, (every thought)

   An' hung its heid* wi' dew, (head)

When winter wasna' winter,

   Though snaws cam' happin doon*, (covering down)

Langsyne, when life was bonnie,

   Spring gaed a twalmonth* roun'. (went a twelvemonth)

Langsyne, when life was bonnie,

   An' a' the days were lang;

When through them ran the music

   That comes to us in sang,

We never wearied liltin' * (singing sweetly)

   The auld love-laden tune;

Langsyne when life was bonnie,

   Love gaed a twalmonth roun'.

Langsyne, when life was bonnie,

   An' a' the warld* was fair, (world)

The leaves were green wi' simmer*, (summer)

   For autumn wasna there.

But listen hoo* they rustle, (how)

   Wi' an eerie, weary soun',

For noo*, alas, 'tis winter (now)

   That gangs* a twalmonth roun'. (goes)


          - Alexander Anderson

Driven Home

I am the angel charged to take you home.

I have nothing to look forward to. You have.

You think you nodded off for forty winks:

big boy, you have been dozing for a hundred years.

And here we are on Purgatory's M8

blinking awake by floodlit Kirk o'Shotts

where rusted tv masts and riding lights

pitch above Central Scotland's forest's waves.

Here's Holytown and Newhouse. Sing the one

about your father's many mansions. Hope it's true.

They're gathered at the door so see you in.

Loosen your seatbelt. There's our Maker – no,

that bloke with silver stubble on his chin

and five scenes from your famous childhood

tattooed on each forearm. On you go.

- James McGonigal


Volumes 4-6

Vocal Chamber Music


SongNotes: Volumes 1-3