SongNotes: Volumes 4-6
Viva Sweet Love is a set of five songs originally written for bass voice. The middle three are on poems of James Laughlin bookended by two poems of E.E. Cummings, all first-person narratives. These particular poets wrote love poems: Cummings, radiant and ecstatic (occasionally erotic), and Laughlin, complicated and a sometimes dark. Cummings rhetoric is high-flown, Laughlin’s plainspoken. Another thread that binds these two poets is the Laughlin, besides writing poetry, founded the publishing house New Directions, which published many mid-century American writers, including Cummings.
As is the sea marvelous begins with language evocative of Genesis, sonorous and remote. The piano sets the atmosphere suggesting the depths of the sea and the hypnotic breaking of the waves. The earth has its seasons, the moon its phases, the stars fade at the first morning light, “but the sea does not change” the poet reminds us. The tone of the poem turns surprisingly intimate in the closing lines. The pianist must gauge the opening two measures by the speed of the sixty-fourth notes in the third and keep the tempo inexorably steady.
By contrast, Rome: In the Café needs a certain improvisatory freedom throughout. The music began as a rejected cue for an HBO special. For the singer, it is important to know that the audience will not realize this is a first-person narrative until the very end: this should come as a surprise – if she comes every morning at eleven, then the speaker is already there awaiting her. This is one of several Laughlin poems tinged with an element of voyeurism. Be sure to use the revised version of this song in Volume 4 of the Collected Songs.
The poet's use of anaphora is the engine that drives You came as a thought. Each phrase should seem to be formulated in the pauses separating them. Take care to differentiate between the dotted eighths and the eighths in measures 3 & 5. The modulation into the last bar should feel like a revelation.
The Crystal Palace Market stood at the intersection of Eighth and Market streets in San Francisco from 1923 until 1959. This is another instance in which the narrator is 'watching'. Another strain running through Laughlin's poetry is the longing of an older man for a younger woman, and considering the imagery, this is a person of appetites. Do observe the difference between straight eighths and swung triplets, and the speaker's voice and the song on the radio.
The performers need to capture the Hopkins-like, ecstatic quality of sweet spring, and much of this task falls to the pianist. As the song contains few cadences, the pianist must maintain a light and effervescent texture, always 'keeping the feather in the air'. The last two bars are in tempo.
As is the sea marvelous
as is the sea marvelous
hands which sent her forth
to sleep upon the world
and the earth withers
the moon crumbles
one by one
stars flutter into dust
but the sea
does not change
and she goes forth out of hands and
she returns into hands
and is with sleep…
- e. e. cummings
Rome: In the Café
She comes at eleven every morning
To meet a man who makes her cry
They sit at a table in the back row
Talking very earnestly and soon
She begins to cry he holds her
Hand and reasons with her & she
Tries to smile when he leaves
her then she cries again and
Orders a brandy and gulps it
Down then she makes her face
New and goes home yes I think
That she knows that I come just
To watch her & wait for the day
When he does not come at all.
- James Laughlin
You Came as a Thought
You Came as a Thought
When I was past such thinking
You came as a song when I had
Finished singing you came when
The sun had just begun its set-
ting you were my evening star.
Crystal Palace Market
Saw a girl in a food
store who looked like
you gave me the shakes
in my poor old heart
darling darling sings
the voice on the radio
darling why did we
ever drift apart big
giant food market full
of things to eat every
thing to eat that a
person can desire
but I guess that I'll go
hungry hungry hungry
darling says the radio
why did we ever part?
“sweet spring is your
time is my time is our
time for springtime is lovetime
and viva sweet love”
(all the merry little birds are
flying in the floating in the
very spirits singing in
are winging in the blossoming)
lovers go and lovers come
but any two are perfectly
alone there's nobody else alive
(such a sky and such a sun
I never knew and neither did you
And everybody never breathed
Quite so many kinds of yes)
Not a tree can count his leaves
Each herself by opening
But shining who by thousands mean
Only one amazing thing
(secretly adoring shyly
tiny winging darting floating
merry in the blossoming
always joyful selves are singing)
“sweet spring is your
time is my time is our
time for springtime is lovetime
and viva sweet love”
- e. e. cummings
James Laughlin was advised to give up writing poetry by his one-time mentor Ezra Pound. Happily, not only did he persevere and leave a significant volume of collected poems, he also founded New Directions publishing, which disseminated the work of Pound, Bishop, Williams, Stevens and a host of other mid-century poets.
Laughlin's poetry speaks of love and lust, of things remembered, sometimes with regret, and, at times, the frustrated obsession of an older man for a much younger woman. The Brief Light was originally written for baritone and guitar, and the piano version hews closely to that setting. The title is taken from Catullus:
...cum semel occidit brevis lux, nox est perpetua una dormienda.
...once the brief light sets, night is an endless sleeping.
I thought of When you danced cinematically. As the woman mimes her dance to imagined music, we can see the fleeting image of Cynthia superimposed, and vanish. The accompaniment features typical flamenco tremolo passages and rasgueado flourishes.
The situation in Song begs certain questions: is the woman just a neighbor or is she known to the narrator? Did she actually take notice of him? Is the scenario he has concocted only in his imagination? Over an insinuating accompaniment, the repetition of “lovely so lovely” becomes unsettling.
The Voices trades in the age-old dichotomy between rational and emotional: a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. Curiously, the mind cautions “you'll take her love but you can't give yourself”, but the heart responds confidently that regardless, “you will bring her a happiness she has never known before.” Is this presumption a recipe for misery and remorse? Heart and mind aside, a steady tempo will keep singer and pianist in sync.
Occidet brevis lux could be the sober reckoning of the characters in Crystal Palace Market: a young woman whose life lies ahead of her and an aging man whose years lay behind. His expression is halting, vulnerable. In contrast to what preceded, the accompaniment is spare, the tune obsessive.
The Summons was in my mind for several years before I could settle on how to treat this brutal yet ultimately tender poem. It wasn't until I was relegated to the six strings of the guitar, rather than the eighty-eight keys of the piano that it came into focus. The nocturnal conjuring of the departed puts one in mind of Christina Rossetti's Echo. Muffled drumbeats set the scene for the exposition. These martial sections (also m. 20-25) need to be rigidly rhythmic to contrast with the intimate, domestic scene.
I have drifted references the myth of Ariadne, who was abandoned on the island of Naxos by the Athenian hero Theseus. In a more sympathetic version of the legend, his ship is swept out to sea by a storm preventing his return. In any event, Laughlin turns the story to his own purpose. The song is marked 'with freedom' and declamation should be recitative-like.
When You Danced
For me those steps of flamenco
There was no music but you clap-
ped your hands and arched your
back & stomped with your heels
& your skirts flew and a smile
of radiant delight was on your
face and my thoughts went back
to Tarragona so many years ago
when I joined the ring of dan-
cers with Cynthia in the square
oh she is long gone I know not
where but you brought her back
to me for a moment & gave me
yourself even more beautiful.
O lovely lovely so lovely
just fresh from a night of
it lovely oh I saw you at
nine in the morning coming
home in the street with no
hat and your coat clutched
tight but not hiding your
evening dress lovely and
fresh from a night of it
lovely you stopped at the
curb for the light & your
eye caught mine lovely so
lovely and you knew that
I knew and you knew that
I wanted you too so fresh
from a night of it lovely.
It is sin it is sin it is a
Deadly sin whines the tired
old voice in
The back of his head you'll
Take her love but you can't
It will end in misery & end
In remorse it is sin whines
the tired old
voice it is love it is love
sings the voice in the heart
you will bring
her a happiness she has never
known before you'll bring her
to life and
she'll burn with love's won-
derful fire but it's sin no
it's love cry
perpetua dormienda that longest
night when he'll see you no more.
He went out to their glorious
War & went down in it and his
Last belief was
Her love as he breathed flame
In the waves and sank burning
Now I lie under
His picture in the dark room
In the wife's bed and partake
Of his unknown
Life does he see does he stand
In the room does he feel does
He burn again
Later I wake in the night while
She sleeps and call out to him
Return to this bed & embody the
Love that was yours and is hers
And is mine
I have drifted
I have drifted
off to sea from you but
you were not abandoned
Ariadne we were playing
in the sand like child-
ren we waded in the sea
a current carried me a-
way but left you on the
shore your life is yours
again I cannot will not
harm you more your eyes
were soft & sad I loved
you as I vever loved be-
fore but now the ancient
sea has carried me away.
- James Laughlin
The poet E. E. Cummings generally did not title his poems, but as a matter of practicality, songs must have titles, so I decided on Witness, because the scene suggested to me the practice of 'witnessing', i.e., relating a spiritual encounter at religious revivals. This song recounts a strange and numinous meeting. Witness, Passacaglia, love is a place, and Piano are originally from Encounters, a cycle for tenor and orchestra.
no time ago
or else a life
walking in the dark
i met christ
and lay still
while he passed(as
close as i'm to you
made of nothing
Passacaglia is so named because of the musical form in which the poem is cast. The image of stone children singing reminded me of statuary my wife and I came across in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The poet's incantational repetition of the alliterative stone, singing, silence, struck me as eerie and unsettling. (Generally, children are anything but silent.) The song is set as a passacaglia, a set of variations over a cyclical pattern, because of its sense of motion-in-stasis, like the frozen song of the children.
these children singing in stone a
silence of stone these
little children wound with stone
flowers opening for
ever these silently lit
tle children are petals
their song is a flower of
always their flowers
of stone are
a song more silent
than silence these always
singing wreathed with singing
blossoms children of
stone with blossoming
know if a
forever to always children singing forever
a song made
of silent as stone silence of
The epigrammatic love is a place needs no explanation, only a reading of simple, quiet wonder.
love is a place
love is a place
& through this place of
(with brightness of peace)
yes is a world
& in this world of
- E.E. Cummings
Words To Be Spoken was written in memory of pianist Glenn Parker, lost to the AIDS epidemic. It is the alto solo from the Book of Uncommon Prayer. The poem, by Archibald MacLeish, 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”. The Murphys were an expatriate couple who lived for some years in Cap d'Antibes and were hosts to many a luminary in France during the 1920s. Their eldest son Baoth died of spinal meningitis in 1935.
Words To Be Spoken
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
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
I Stop Writing the Poem is the soprano solo from the Book of Uncommon Prayer, on a poem by Tess Gallagher. The emptiness of the shirt, arms in a folded embrace (suggested by the converging lines in the accompaniment), foreshadow the death of the poet's husband from a long illness. The poem reflects advice commonly given to those coping in extremis, in grief: don't think of long-range plans or make momentous decisions, just do the task in front of you, the next thing.
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
Lament was written for Dr. Anna Burton (my mother-in-law) in memory of her mother Florence Meister who used to play ragtime piano. Florence had much tragedy in her young life, which would have been right about the time Millay penned this poem.The song is inspired by the pathetic song of the Victorian era, usually told in the first person, involving a death or a tragedy such as The Baggage Coach Ahead, by Gussie L. Davis. In a less cynical age, and before videos and recordings rendered performances commonplace, these songs would frequently move listeners to weeping. The tempo must be kept inexorably steady except where marked. It's important to realize that this mother is putting on her best face for her children: it's always much more telling to see someone hold it together rather than fall apart.
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I'll make you little jackets;
I'll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There'll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine;
Life must go on;
I forget just why.
- Edna St. Vincent Millay
Nude at the Piano was my first collaboration with librettist Mark Campbell, with whom I would go on to write four operas.
There are two attitudes in this song: A, frustrated, as in the first few bars, and B, self-pitying, in the waltz that follows. This alternates throughout. The recurring grace note slides should sound like a drunken stumble. The A phrases can be headlong, but the B phrases are in strict waltz time.
Nude at the Piano
Here I sit,
Nude at the piano,
On this cold, cold stool.
I got with me here
A bottle of beer
And I'm feeling like a fool.
And while I
Brood at the piano
You are somewhere faraway.
So I sit and I freeze
And I stare at the keys
Wishing I knew how to play.
I would jump
Off the Verrazano
But I'm really just too blue…
So I sit,
Nude at the piano,
I bought for you.
- Mark Campbell
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was friends with conductor George Cleve, the director of the San José Symphony for twenty years. Cleve invited him to an after party following a concert one night for what Ferlinghetti referred to as the 'donor class'. San José Symphony Reception (in flagrante delicto) was his response. The lusty, Beat hallucination veers from quasi-Liszt through fractured Bach, to a sly allusion to the Brahms first cello sonata. Measure 11 may start slower and reach tempo in the next bar. The story should be told matter-of-factly.
San José 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
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
Archibald MacLeish's wife Ada is laughing in Old Photograph. But the laughter appears forced. The photograph in the poet's hands evokes a cascade of memories. Like Mélisande in Debussy's opera (a role she sang), her eyes seem to be saying to the lens, “Ne me touchez pas.” The song is, in fact, made from musical snippets of the opera, most prominently the tune of Mélisande's aria “Mes longs cheveux descendent jusqu'au seuil de la tour". The couple alluded to in the poem, Gerald and Sara Murphy, were wealthy arts patrons (Gerald was an accomplished painter). The Murphys 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, along with many other creative luminaries of the early twentieth century. As the song ends, the poet remains transfixed by the image of his young wife frozen in time, as the piano echoes the melody “Ne me touchez pas.”
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
The tale told in Flamenco is true. C. K. Williams (Charlie to his friends) was a Pulitzer-prize winning poet whom I met while we were Rockefeller fellows at Bellagio. He was also an amateur pianist who he loved to play Chopin and deeply admired performers. Charlie came down to breakfast one morning with a poem he had written the night before about a guitarist he had met in the streets of Grenada. It is at once a devastating portrait of addiction and a cautionary tale - "it can happen to you, or to me". Yet as the story unfolds, we can sense the poet's genuine affection beneath the grim details.
The singer is accompanied by guitaristic flamenco flourishes and a recurring downward arpeggio in scordatura open tuning. A certain flexibility in story-telling is necessary, but never lose the feeling of the dance. Remember that in the end, despite all the darkness, the song is really the celebration of a life. Charlie chose to memorialize it in verse because "he played like a fiend".
I once met a flamenco guitarist,
in Spain, in Granada,
an American flamenco guitarist,
and Jewish, of all things,
who played like a fiend.
He called himself "Juan",
then something with an "S,"
not the "S" it had been,
but Solares or Sastres:
whatever; he played like a fiend.
He lived in a run-down hotel
which was really a whorehouse,
he told me; though mostly
what he told me were lies,
he did play like a fiend.
That he was an addict
he didn't say, but every few hours
he went for a shot,
because he was sick, he said:
but he played like a fiend,
Or perhaps I should say,
"played like a fiend
when he played,"
because he was often "nodding,"
and no one asleep plays like a fiend.
How had it happened?
Who knows? It happened to him,
it could happen to you,
or to me, and I for one
never played like a fiend.
He lived in a whorehouse
and lied and played like a fiend.
Should there be more?
There's no more.
Just that he played like a fiend.
- C. K. Williams
“To face the truth of the passing away of the world and make song of it, make beauty of it, is not to solve the riddle of our mortal lives, but perhaps to accomplish something more.” (MacLeish: Poetry and Experience) Sarah's Song was written for the 20th anniversary of the AIDS Quilt Songbook and the text is taken from MacLeish's play J. B. - the story of a modern-day Job. At the end of the play, when his all alone, his children dead, his world in shambles, his wife Sarah returns to him, holding a twig of forsythia, a symbol of rebirth. A redaction of their conversation before her final soliloquy is worth quoting:
J.B. He (God) does not love. He
Sarah: But we do. That's the wonder.
J.B. It's too dark to see.
Sarah: Then blow on the coal of the heart, my
J. B. The coal of the heart...
Sarah's Song is set as a lullaby, inspired by Chopin's Berceuse.
Blow on the coal of the heart… It's all the light now.
Blow on the coal of the heart. The candles in churches are out.
The lights have gone out in the sky.
Blow on the coal of the heart. And we'll see by and by...We'll see where we are.
Cry for justice and the stars. Will stare until your eyes sting. Weep,
Enormous winds will thrash the water.
Cry in sleep for your lost children,
Snow will fall...
Snow will fall.
Blow on the coal of the heart... It's all the light now.
The wit won't burn and the wet soul smoulders.
Blow on the coal of the heart and we'll know...
We'll see where we are.
- Archibald MacLeish
William Herman was a poet, scholar, novelist, and personal friend. I want is typical of his work: unflinchingly observant, self-aware and unsentimental, though his personality was expansive and warm. Shortly before his death he had given me a clutch of poems. This one appealed to me immediately as a song.
I want to know someone who looks like me,
Someone with my smile,
My cracks and folds,
My knees, my sense of doom…
What he knows
He can tell when it rains
He's always suppressing a sob
That's what he looks like
The fat around the middle
The flexibility of his joints,
You wouldn't think it possible,
His nose runs at the oddest times.
(See? There it goes…)
I'd like there to be an intimacy between us.
I have a thousand questions.
- William Herman
A triolet is a poetic form consisting of eight lines in a specific rhyme scheme. Triolet, the song is written in the style of a nineteenth century parlor song.
Sleep on her breast,
Rose of my heart!
Flower so blest,
Sleep on her breast;
I crave thy rest,
Sleep on her breast,
Rose of my heart.
- Eugene O'Neill
Mark Strand's poetry in Another Place inhabits a twilight world between waking and dreaming, darkness and light, living and dying. Strand had a special awareness of light as he was also a gifted painter and wrote a short volume on the works of Edward Hopper. And as with the figures in Hopper's images, there is a solitary quality to the narrator of these poems. In referencing the Wallace Stevens poem Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu, Strand says that “in a world without heaven all is farewell.” There is much that is valedictory in these verses. Yet his dark sensibility is always leavened with sardonic wit. The challenge for the young singer is to inhabit an old man's thoughts. This cycle was originally written for soprano and string quartet.
The Coming of Light is a celebration that love is not solely the provenance of the young. Like grace, it can come to us unmerited and unbidden. There is an ecstatic quality to this poem, and it should be delivered with a sense of wonder as tomorrow's dust (which we all are) flares into breath.
Another Place speaks of a different light, barely bright enough to illuminate an eerie landscape. The line “he is not someone I know” bisects the poem like the horizon between sky and its mirror image in the water. The song is built on a twelve-note passacaglia and variations. The atmosphere is hushed and twilit.
The quote introducing the poem XVIII from Dark Harbor is by Rainer Maria Rilke from Lament in his Das Buch der Bilder.
The bold introductory chords usher in a turning outward to the world, away from the dark introspection of the previous poem. The atmosphere is light, the rhythm dancing. However, as the poet says, “not for long.” Strand's use of anaphora “In which my…” appropriates the cadence of a Lenten litany. The last line invokes dancing, which has long been a metaphor for life. It is important for the pianist to bear in mind the that the piece was originally written for string quartet and retain the feeling of chamber music.
The title of An Old Man Awake in His Own Death is an inversion of Wallace Stevens' A Child Asleep in Its Own Life. This poem transpires in another eerie no-man's-landscape, harkening back to the second song. To quote another of his verses, "I am writing from a place you have never been, / Where the trains don't run, and planes/ Don't land". It is truly another place, where things are no longer what they were, and darkness can shine. The song's only outburst, the heart of the poem and perhaps the cycle, is “Once I was whole, once I was young…” The music after that should sound like a ticking clock.
Following the references to ships and stars, the piece concludes, fittingly, with The End. The middle section (3/4) musically harks back to the dance in the third song. The musical setting belies the seriousness of the text, and that friction is what makes it work. It should be delivered in a frank and unsentimental way.
The Coming of Light
Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow's dust flares into breath.
into what light
not enough for blindness
or clear sight
of what is to come
yet I see
the single boat
the man standing
he is not someone I know
this is another place
what light there is
spreads like a net
what is to come
has come to this
this is the mirror
in which pain is asleep
this is the country
XVIII from Dark Harbor
“I would like to step out of my heart's door and be
Under the great sky.” I would like to step out
And be on the other side, and be part of all
That surrounds me. I would like to be
In that solitude of soundless things, in the random
Company of the wind, to be weightless, nameless.
But not for long, for I would be downcast without
The things I keep inside my heart; and in no time
I would be back. Ah! the old heart
In which I sleep, in which my sleep increases, in which
My grief is ponderous, in which the leaves are falling,
In which the streets are long, in which the night
Is dark, in which the sky is great, the old heart
That murmurs to me of what cannot go on,
Of the dancing, of the inmost dancing.
An Old Man Awake in His Own Death
This is the place that was promised
when I went to sleep,
taken from me when I woke.
This is the place unknown to anyone,
where names of ships and stars
drift out of reach.
The mountains are not mountains anymore;
the sun is not the sun.
One tends to forget how it was;
I see myself, I see
the shine of darkness on my brow.
Once I was whole, once I was young...
As if it mattered now
and you could hear me
and the weather of this place would ever cease.
Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,
Watching the pier as the ship sails away, or what it will seem like
When he's held by the sea's roar, motionless, there at the end,
Or what he shall hope for once it is clear that he'll never go back.
When the time has passed to prune the rose or caress the cat,
When the sunset torching the lawn and the full moon icing it down
No longer appear, not every man knows what he'll discover instead.
When the weight of the past leans against nothing, and the sky
Is no more than remembered light, and the stories of cirrus
And cumulus come to a close, and all the birds are suspended in flight,
Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing
When the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.
Be Music, Night begins with flash of fire and light and ends with a gentle, nocturnal lullaby. Sri Aurobindo was an Indian nationalist who turned from politics to spirituality. Three of the texts are hortatory, one conversational. The first invokes fire, light, ecstasy, and infinity; the second, the four winds; the third, the earth and its fruits, and the last (mirroring the first) night, sea, sky, earth, and the deity.
In the Hindu marriage ritual, the Holy Fire is witness to the couple's vows. In Bride of the Fire, the speaker is setting aside earthly cares and desires. She enters a union of enlightenment and spiritual ecstasy [literally, to stand outside one's self]. The music oscillates between incandescence and calm. The repeated note can be taken with alternating hands for added brilliance.
In contrast, Carl Sandburg, the plainspoken Chicago poet, murmurs sensuously to the elements in Baby Song of the Four Winds. The poem is set as a bluesy lullaby.
Autumn is a time of reaping, of taking stock, for winter isn't far off. In Léonie Adams' For Harvest, the summer was a season of strife. But the speaker is determined to rejoin the world under an autumn sky. The music is sober and contemplative.
Kenneth Patchen was a pacifist poet and novelist. Be Music, Night is but one of many poems dedicated to Miriam Patchen, his wife of 37 years. The language is high-flown and lyrical; the music, gently rocking.
Bride of the Fire
Bride of the Fire, clasp me now close, -
Bride of the Fire!
I have shed the bloom of the earthly rose,
I have slain desire.
Beauty of the Light, surround my life, -
Beauty of the Light!
I have sacrificed longing and parted from grief,
I can bear thy delight.
Image of Ecstasy, thrill and enlace, -
Image of Bliss!
I would see only thy marvellous face,
Feel only thy kiss.
Voice of Infinity, sound in my heart, -
Call of the One!
Stamp there thy radiance, vever to part,
O living sun.
- Sri Aurobindo
Baby Song of the Four Winds
Let me be your baby, south wind.
Rock me, let me rock, rock me now.
Rock me low, rock me warm.
Let me be your baby.
Comb my hair, west wind.
Comb me with a cowlick.
Or let me go with a pompadour.
Come on, west wind, make me your baby.
North wind, shake me where I'm foolish.
Shake me loose and change my ways.
Cool my ears with a blue sea wind.
I'm your baby, make me behave.
And you, east wind, what can I ask?
A fog comfort? A fog to tuck me in?
Fix me so and let me sleep.
I'm your baby – and I always was.
- Carl Sandburg
The year turns to its rest.
Up from the earth,
the fields, the early-fallen dew,
Moves the large star at evening,
Arcturus low with autumn,
And summer calls in her many voices upon the frost.
I who have not seen for weeping
The plum ripen and fall, or the yellowing sheaf,
Am not unmindful now of the season that came and went,
The hours that told off freshness,
The bud and the rich leaf.
Though I turned aside before the summer
And weathered but a season of the mind,
Let me sit among you when the husk is stripped,
Let me tell by the bright grain,
Those labours in an acre of cloud and the reap of the wind.
Be Music, Night
Be music, night,
That her sleep may go
Where angels have their pale tall choirs
Be a hand, sea,
That her dreams may watch
Thy guidesman touching the green flesh of the world
Be a voice, sky,
That her beauties may be counted
And the stars will tilt their quiet faces
Into the mirror of her loveliness
Be a road, earth,
That her walking may take thee
Where the towns of heaven lift their breathing spires
O be a world and a throne, God,
That her living may find its weather
And the souls of ancient bells in a child's book
Shall lead her into Thy wondrous house
- Kenneth Patchen
The sky bowl is not a vista one can survey from a high rise in an eastern seaboard metropolis – Summer Stars is a decidedly midwestern poem. I first used this poem in tandem with another, Stars, Songs, Faces, by Carl Sandburg in a setting for SATB, two horns and harp. In this incarnation, the piano suggests the twinkling of stars.
Bend low again, night of summer stars.
So near you are, sky of summer stars,
So near, a long-arm man can pick off stars,
Pick off what he wants in the sky bowl,
So near you are, summer stars,
So near, strumming, strumming,
So lazy and hum-strumming.
- Carl Sandburg
A stark contrast, Nightsong is spare and desolate - the speaker finds solace neither by lamplight nor daylight. Like Intermezzo from Quiet Songs, the voice is accompanied solely by trio of instruments. The poet, Amy Elizabeth Burton, has supplied this comment:
"The words of this poem are spoken by someone in the wake of a deep loss. Going to bed, once a cozy ritual for two, is now a solitary and confusing one."
I turn out the light
I whisper goodnight
And the room is filled
With the absence of
I turn on the light
Feeling lost in the dark
But the room isn't bright
In the absence of
I manage by day
I do all right.
But at night, in my sleep
Sometimes I weep.
I turn out the light the light
I whisper goodnight
The room is filled
With the absence of You.
- Amy Elizabeth Burton
The poem by D. H. Lawrence is laced with longing and the distant memory of childhood. The song is particularly challenging for the pianist, as it is a transcription from the orchestra. Great care must be taken with balance and pedaling – counterpoint must remain clear and tutti sections should be set off from more intimate chamber music textures.
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with the winter outside
And hymns in the cozy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in a flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for
- D.H. Lawrence
Heartbeats [published by Boosey & Hawkesin the AIDS Quilt Songbook] was written at the request of baritone William Parker for his project The AIDS Quilt Songbook. Will had been suffering the effects on the illness for a long time. His rationale for the project was that at the time, there were many well-meaning fundraising concerts for AIDS which featured famous opera stars and well-known arias, but nothing that confronted the reality of the illness in the texts. The poem by Melvin Dixon (who was also battling the disease) chronicles the progression of the illness in the rhythm of heartbeats, an important musical element. It becomes more insistent as the song progresses, more desperate, even skipping a beat toward the end. Although the music is not serial, it is based on a twelve-note theme which is varied throughout. At intervals the Stabat Mater intervenes. This chant is used in a Roman Catholic devotional service called the Stations of the Cross. The stations are painted or carved images situated along the walls inside the church, depicting the progressive stages of the Passion of Christ. As the celebrant processes from one station to the next, prayers are offered, and a verse of the Stabat Mater is sung. The only time the singer picks up this tune is at the very end.
Stabat Mater dolorosa The mournful Mother stood
Juxta crucem lacrimosa By the cross weeping
Dum pendebat Filius. Where hung her son.
Work out. Ten laps.
Chin up. Look good.
Steam room. Dress warm.
Call home. Fresh air.
Eat right. Rest well.
Sweetheart. Safe sex.
Sore throat. Long flu.
Hard nodes. Beware.
Test blood. Count cells.
Reds thin. Whites low.
Dress warm. Eat well.
Short breath. Fatigue.
Night sweats. Dry cough.
Loose stools. Weight loss.
Get mad. Fight back.
Call home. Rest well.
Don't cry. Take charge.
No sex. Eat right.
Call home. Talk slow.
Chin up. No air.
Arms wide. Nodes hard.
Cough dry. Hold on.
Mouth wide. Drink this.
Breath in. Breath out.
No air. Breath in.
Breath in. No air.
Blackout. White rooms.
Head hot. Feet cold.
No work. Eat right.
CAT scan. Chin up.
Breath in. Breath out.
No air. No air.
Thin blood. Sore lungs.
Mouth dry. Mind gone.
Six months? Three weeks?
Cab't eat. No air.
It waits. For me.
Sweetheart. Don't stop.
Breath in. Breath out.
- Melvin Dixon