John Musto                            Composer/Pianist

                    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

from god's

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…


          the breaking

of your



my lips

                            -  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?

          -James Laughlin

sweet spring

“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

awandering awondering

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.

The Voices

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

         give yourself

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.

The Summons

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

     Wanderer come

Return to this bed & embody the

Love that was yours and is hers

     And is mine

     And endures.

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

jesus)my heart               

flopped over                    

and lay still

while he passed(as                                             

close as  i'm to you

yes closer                    

made of nothing               

except loneliness

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

silently singing

a song more silent

than silence these always

children forever

singing wreathed with singing

blossoms children of

stone with blossoming


know if a

lit tle

tree listens

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

love move

(with brightness of peace)

all places

yes is a world

& in this world of

yes live

(skilfully curled)

all worlds

                       - 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

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

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.


Listen, children:

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,

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

                                          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  

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.”

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

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.

Sarah's Song

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 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

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,

Alone, apart!

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.

Another Place

I walk

into what light

there is

not enough for blindness

or clear sight

of what is to come

yet I see

the water

the single boat

the man standing

he is not someone I know

this is another place

what light there is

spreads like a net

over nothing

what is to come

has come to this


this is the mirror

in which pain is asleep

this is the country

nobody visits

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.

The End

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

For Harvest

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.

Summer 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

she sings.                                   

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

the past.          

     - 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.

It begins:

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.

Today? Tonight?

It waits. For me.

Sweetheart. Don't stop.

Breath in. Breath out.

                    - Melvin Dixon


Volumes 1-3

Vocal Chamber Music