Kyle Gann: Two T.S. Eliot Songs

My favorite poems of T.S. Eliot's are what I think of as the "Sweeney" poems, the rhyming satires he published in 1920. In the 1980s I set two of them to music, "The Hippopotamus" and "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service," and intended to set more, but the songs I had written never attracted much attention. I admit, I prefer setting to music poems that rhyme; they give my own rhythmic sense something to play off of. "The Hippopotamus" was begun around 1979, when I was in grad school at Northwestern, and completed in time to be premiered on my doctoral concert, on April 30, 1981. The accompaniment is mostly hymn-like, trailing into an Ivesian miasma to make fun of the church at the end. "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service," mostly written in 1985 and refurbished in 1993, required an accompaniment stately and vaguely Byzantine; it is my most ambitious song. The poems are as follows:

The Hippopotamus

The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

The hippo's feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.

The 'potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over sea.

At mating time the hippo's voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church, at being one with God.

The hippopotamus's day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way-
The Church can sleep and feed at once.

I saw the 'potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hossanas.

Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.

He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr'd virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service

Polyphiloprogenitive
The sapient sutlers of the Lord
Drift across the window-panes.
In the beginning was the Word.

In the beginning was the Word.
Superfetation of t n,
And at the mensual turn of time
Produced enervate Origen.

A painter of the Umbrian school
Designed upon a gesso ground
The nimbus of the Baptized God.
The wilderness is cracked and browned

But through the water pale and thin
Still shine the unoffending feet
And there above the painter set
The Father and the Paraclete.

The sable presbyters approach
The avenue of penitence;
The young are red and pustular
Clutching piaculative pence.

Under the penitential gates
Sustained by staring Seraphim
Where the souls of the devout
Burn invisible and dim.

Along the garden-wall the bees
With hairy bellies pass between
The staminate and pistilate,
Blest office of the epicene.

Sweeney shifts from ham to ham
Stirring the water in his bath.
The masters of the subtle schools
Are controversial, polymath.

Score (PDF) MP3

- Kyle Gann

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