John Musto                            Composer/Pianist

NYFOS Next: An Evening with John Musto and Friends

                      OPERA America’s National Opera Center          

Amy Burton, soprano

Vale Rideout, tenor

William Sharp, baritone

John Musto, piano

Nude at the Piano (Mark Campbell) 2001                                               

Old Photograph (Archibald MacLeish) 2001                                               

Witness (E. E. Cummings) 1992                         

Passacaglia (E. E. Cummings) 1992

San José Symphony Reception (Lawrence Ferlinghetti) 2001

   (in flagrante delicto)

Scottish Songs 2013 (New York Premiere)                                             


            1. Spell of the bridge (Helen Lamb)          

            2. Atheist Lighting a Candle in Albi Cathedral (Frances Leviston)

            3. Flowers (Helena Nelson)

            4. Not that it’s loneliness (Chloe Morrish)

            5. Langsyne, When Life Was Bonnie (Alexander Anderson)

            6. Driven Home (James McGonigal)

The Brief Light  (James Laughlin)  2011  (New York Premiere)          


            1. When you danced                               

            2.  Song

            3.  The Voices

            4. The Brief Light

            5. The Summons

            6.  I have drifted

Summer Stars (Carl Sandburg) 2012                                                        

Sarah’s Song (Archibald MacLeish) 2012


Texts and Notes on the Program

Nude at the Piano was the first text by librettist Mark Campbell that I set to music.  We went on to write four operas.  It was written for tenor Robert White who premiered it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2001.  

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

Practically all the music of Old Photograph is based on snippets from the Debussy/Maeterlinck opera Pelléas et Mélisande.   MacLeish’s wife Ada was an operatic soprano, and her forced laughter and unsmiling eyes seem to be saying to the camera lens, “Ne me touchez pas”, the first words of Melisande to Golaud in the forest.  This five note motif runs through the song, as does the main tune on which Melisande sings “Mes longs cheveux descendent jusqu’au seuil de la tour.” Macleish and his wife spent most of the 1920s in France. The couple alluded to in the poem, Gerald and Sara Murphy, were wealthy arts patrons (Gerald being an accomplished painter) who lived for a time as expatriates in a chalet in Cap d’Antibes that they dubbed “Villa America”. They regularly played host to Picasso, Hemingway, John Dos Passos and his wife, the Fitzgeralds and the MacLeishes, and many other creative luminaries of the early twentieth century.  The song is a solo from a larger work for SATB and piano, the Book of Uncommon Prayer.

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:                     (Gerald and Sara Murphy)

they had given her new potatoes as sweet as peas

on a white plate under the linden tree.

She was singing Melisande with Croiza* – (Claire Croiza, mezzo-soprano, 1882-1946)

“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 poet E. E. Cummings generally did not title his poems, but as a matter of practicality, songs must have titles, even it it’s the first line.  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 and the next are part of a cycle (Encounters) for tenor and orchestra written for, premiered and recorded by Paul Sperry.

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

- E. E. Cummings

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


- E. E. Cummings

Ferlinghetti’s lusty, beat hallucination, San José Symphony Reception (in flagrante delicto) can easily be a circle in a present day Inferno, its frustrated denizens forever on the make.  This song is also from the Book of Uncommon Prayer.

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*


*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.  Since all of them (except Alexander Anderson) are still very much with us, 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

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 *

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.]

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


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

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 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

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

[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.]

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 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

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*          (motorway connecting Glasgow and Edinburgh)

blinking awake by floodlit Kirk o’Shotts*     (a church along the M8)

where rusted tv masts*and riding lights            (Kirk o’Shotts transmitting station is nearby)

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


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 (sometimes quite voyeuristically), of things remembered, and, at times, the frustrated obsession of an older man for a much younger woman.  The Brief Light was written for baritone Patrick Mason and guitarist David Starobin for their Crazy Jane recording.  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.

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

the voices together and sadly

and happily madly he enters

        again the soft

        and delectable

        battle of Love.

Occidit brevis lux

(The brief light sets)

Is it the end of the world to

Indulge an old man who adores

you    for you are young & lovely

and have the excitement of a

dozen who knows perhaps even a

score of lovers before you     but

for him the stars are waning and

he feels the sadness even the ter-

ror of the long night that is com-

ing on    he knows that nox est una

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

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 never loved be-

fore but now the ancient

sea has carried me away.

- James Laughlin


Summer Stars (the poem by plain-spoken, populist  Chicago bard Carl Sandburg) was written for the Opera America Songbook, and was premiered and recorded by Amy Burton in 2012.

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

“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 world in shambles, his wife Sarah returns to him, holding a twig of forsythia.  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 was  premiered by Amy Burton at the Cooper Union auditorium in December 2012.

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

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