Kyle Gann: Transcendental Sonnets (2001)

Jones Very (1813-1880) was the son of two cousins who never married: his father a roving sea captain, his mother an outspoken atheist. This was a difficult beginning for a young man in 19th-century Salem, Massachusetts, and Very compensated by becoming intensely religious, and by enrolling at Harvard, where he won the distinguished Bowdoin prize for his essays, graduated second in his class, and was afterward hired as a Greek tutor. In September of his third year as tutor, 1838, he began telling his students that the Holy Spirit was speaking through him. The President of Harvard immediately removed him, and Very was placed in an asylum for a month, released when his caretakers confirmed that he was harmless. In the next year and a half, Very wrote over 300 poems of an ecstatic nature, some of them written from the points of view of God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost. "[N]one can hear," he wrote with touching poignancy, "the man grown silent in the praise of God."

Luckily, before the onset of his madness - if madness it was - Very had been befriended by several members of the Transcendentalist movement, including especially Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. His supporters were struck with the insight with which Very dissected and deconstructed the souls of the people he met and harangued, prominent ministers among them. As the redoubtable Transcendentalist scholar Perry Miller puts it, "By 1839 insanity was a hazard the Transcendentalists were prepared to run.... The Transcendental theory of genius practically demanded one or two mad poets; most Transcendentalists were not quite prepared to sacrifice themselves, and Very vindicated the theory by proving a willing victim." In 1839 Emerson collected and edited some sixty of Very's poems and essays and had them published in book form. (Frustrated by so many mistakes in a document supposedly inspired by divine authority, Emerson at one point complained, "Cannot the Spirit parse and spell?")

Very's poetic output from this period comprises a little-known and fertile fount of Western mysticism. As a poet he has been aptly criticized for the narrowness of his range and the monochromaticism of his tone - and yet the elegantly natural concision of his language and the penetrating power of his metaphors result in many unforgettable poems. The intensity of his ecstatic state sometimes melts away syntax, leaving behind passages worthy of a post-Calvinist Gertrude Stein. Very foresaw that his ecstasy would last not much more than a year. In late 1839 it faded, and although he was finally licensed to preach, he had retired by 1843, and lived out his last four decades in shadowy obscurity, still writing poetry that by then, devoid of the Holy Spirit's infusions, had become mechanical and pedestrian.

A regular pilgrim to Walden Pond since the early 1980s, I have nurtured a lifelong fascination with Transcendentalism; this is not the first time I have set its poetry. All of the poems by Very I chose for Transcendental Sonnets are from the 1838-39 period, and all of them are sonnets - overwhelmingly Very's favorite genre. "The Son" is one of his best-known, most widely reprinted verses. Many of his finest poems are dark portrayals of an earth peopled by the walking dead, those who live outside daily communion with God: I felt that I should impose on the audience no more than two of these, "Enoch" and "Faith." I was touched by "Enoch"'s sad image of a lonely God walking on the earth, and its quintessentially Transcendentalist point that the true temple of God isn't churches of stone and wood, but the human soul. The final song is made up from two of his most mystical sonnets, both titled "The Word"; I omit the last six lines from the first poem, which paint too contrasting a mood.

In setting texts I always allow the text to lead, and to suggest the style of the music, with the result here that the songs suggest historical idioms more directly than my other music. The project, as I saw it, was to find within the context of postminimalism a style, or several styles, of contrapuntal choral singing which would be gratifying to sing. The first movement, "The Son," was drawn very much from the structure of the poem, with the addition that the four parts of the choir each introduce their lines of text independently, in echoing but contrasting melodies. The remaining four movements follow - though always within a postminimalist context, with its limitation of harmonic materials - a stylistic progression from the music of Very's youth to the present day. "Enoch" represents the 18th-century American hymn and fuging tune; "Love" a 19th-century romantic choral style; "Faith" a more dissonant, modernist relationship of harmonies; and "The Word" a postmodern conception fusing aspects of minimalism with the rhythmic ideas of Henry Cowell and Conlon Nancarrow, attempting more than the others to capture Very's ecstatic state. I hope that this symphony of American psalms will be a testament to our native, Yankee brand of spirituality.

I offer my inexpressible thanks to James Bagwell and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir for making the composition and performance of this work possible. While working on it, I had a feeling that I was born to write this piece: that the spirit of Jones Very had been following me for many years, impelling me toward Walden Pond, to Emerson's house, to the bookstores of Concord, Massachusetts, endlessly asking, When are you going to write my songs? I can dedicate the piece to no one more appropriate than my father, who has sung in choruses his entire life, and who especially loves music for chorus and orchestra.

-- World premiere: October 19, 2002, by the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Erik Stark, Kathleen Hacker and Christopher Paul Aspaas, soloists, at the East 91st Street Christian Church, Indianapolis
-- World premiere of the version with two-piano accompaniment: May 6, 2008, by the Bard College Symphonic Choir conducted by James Bagwell, at the Fisher Center, Bard College
-- The Dessoff Choirs conducted by James Bagwell, Megan Taylor and Jeffrey Hill, soloists, March 6, 2010, at Merkin Hall, New York City (two-piano version).
-- The Universalist Unitarian Church of Buffalo Choir and members of The Buffalo Philharmonic, conducted by Daniel Bassin, January 19, 2014 at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Buffalo

- Kyle Gann

1. The Son, mp3, 6:25
2. Enoch, mp3, 6:24
3. Love, mp3, 6:49
4. Faith, mp3, 5:51
5. The Word, mp3, 9:19
PDF score

The Son (November 17, 1838)

Father, I wait thy word. The sun doth stand
Beneath the mingling line of night and day,
A listening servant, waiting thy command
To roll rejoicing on its silent way;
The tongue of time abides the appointed hour,
Till on our ear its solemn warnings fall;
The heavy cloud withholds the pelting shower,
Then every drop speeds onward at thy call;
The bird reposes on the yielding bough,
With breast unswollen by the tide of song;
So does my spirit wait thy presence now
To pour thy praise in quickening life along,
Chiding with voice divine man's lengthened sleep,
While round the Unuttered Word and Love their vigils keep.

Enoch (November 10, 1838)

I looked to find a man who walked with God,
Like the translated patriarch of old; -
Though gladdened millions on his footstool trod,
Yet none with him did such sweet converse hold;
I heard the wind in low complaint go by
That none his melodies like him could hear;
Day unto day spoke wisdom from on high,
Yet none like David turned a willing ear;
God walked alone unhonored through the earth;
For him no heart-built temple open stood,
The soul forgetful of her nobler birth
Had hewn him lofty shrines of stone and wood,
And left unfinished and in ruins still
The only temple he delights to fill.

Love (November 1838)

I asked of Time to tell me where was Love;
He pointed to her foot-steps on the snow,
Where first the angel lighted from above,
And bid me note the way and onward go;
Through populous streets of cities spreading wide,
By lonely cottage rising on the moor,
Where bursts from sundered cliff the struggling tide,
To where it hails to sea with answering roar,
She led me on; o'er mountain's frozen head,
where mile on mile still stretches on the plain,
Then homeward whither first my feet she led,
I traced her path along the snow again;
But there the sun had melted from the earth
The prints where first she trod, a child of mortal birth.

Faith (1838-9)

There is no faith; the mountain stands within
Still unrebuked, its summit reaches heaven;
And every action adds its load of sin,
For every action wants the little leaven;
There is no prayer; it is but empty sound,
That stirs with frequent breath the yielding air,
With every pulse they are more strongly bound,
Who make the blood of goats the voice of prayer;
Oh heal them, heal them, Father, with thy word,--
Their sins cry out to thee from every side;
From son and sire, from slave and master heard,
Their voices fill the desert country wide;
And bid thee hasten to relieve and save,
By him who rose triumphant o'er the grave.

The Word (1838-9)

There is no voice but that which speaks in Thee;
For This the world created and creates;
This was, before it bade the light to be;
It is; and is to come; it knows no dates;
By it, spring forth the time-born sons of earth,
That as the grass before the mower falls;
In it, are born the sons of heavenly birth,
And to itself their weary feet it calls;....

The Word (1838-9)

The voice that speaks when thou art in thy tomb,
And spoke before thou sawst the morning light;
This is the Word! of all that is the womb,
Of all that see the never failing sight;
Speechless yet ever speaking, none can hear
The man grown silent in the praise of God;
For they within him live to hope and fear;
They walk and speak, but he the grass-green sod;
Its presence round them calls them hence to It,
A Voice too great for murmur or reproof;
A sun that shines till they are of it lit,
Itself the utterance of Eternal Truth;
Perfect, without a blemish; never found
Save through the veil that wraps thy being round.

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