Kyle Gann: Transcendentalist Songs
for female or male voice, piano
To the Face Seen in the Moon
Indeed, Indeed I Cannot Tell
Questionings (The Idealist)
In the Busy Streets (1984)
I Slept, and Dreamed that Life Was Beauty (1991)
Transcendentalist Songs (2014)
Having gotten hooked on Louisa May Alcott in second grade and Nathaniel Hawthorne not much later, I have been an enthusiast for the American Transcendentalists of Concord, Massachusetts, my entire life. The Transcendentalists were a religious/philosophical/literary movement that, from 1836 to 1860, broke away from the traditional Christian church and created a new atmosphere in American intellectual life. Most people think of the movement today as consisting of the writings of Emerson and Thoreau. For decades I had wanted to write a collection of Transcendentalist poems set to music, and I wrote a couple way back when, but as it was difficult to get singers to make the requisite commitment, I never went further. Some poems, like Cranch's "Enosis," Emerson's "The Rhodora," and Hedge's "Questionings," I thought so much about setting that I have been humming their disembodied vocal lines to myself for decades. At last I decided to tie up this particular loose end, and started writing my Transcendentalist Songs at a rapid pace. My songs may seem like an oddity in my output, for I allow their idiom to be totally inspired by the rhythm and meaning of the poem itself, with no concern whether they "sound like me" or even in any way contemporary; in a sense this cycle is an attempt to repair the fact that there was, in the 1840s, no American composer musically adventurous enough to be the Transcendentalists' analogue. Although there are many musical correspondences among the songs, they constitute a loose collection, singable in any combination and in any order. This is also an open-ended project, and I may add new songs to it from time to time. I include my previous songs by Thoreau and Ellen Sturgis Hooper as an appendix to the set; not quite in the same style as the more recent songs, but worthy, I think, of being mixed in as the performers may prefer.
Enosis: Enosis, or henosis, is a Greek term meaning mystical union. Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892) began his Transcendentalist career as editor of The Western Messenger in Ohio, but returned to Boston and abandoned preaching for a life of deliberate dilettantism in the arts; Perry Miller calls him the only member of the movement who possessed "a feeling for frivolity." His poem "Enosis," published in an early installment of the The Dial under the nondescript title "Stanzas," was an attempt to translate leading Transcendentalist tenets into poetry, the thought that while we are all united in the collective unconscious (to insert Jung's later term), language is incapable of bringing us into true communion.
Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892)
Thought is deeper than all speech,
Feeling deeper than all thought;
Souls to souls can never teach
What unto themselves was taught.
We are spirits clad in veils;
Man by man was never seen;
All our deep communing fails
To remove the shadowy screen.
Heart to heart was never known;
Mind with mind did never meet;
We are columns left alone,
Of a temple once complete.
Like the stars that gem the sky,
Far apart, though seeming near,
In our light we scattered lie;
All is thus but starlight here.
What is social company
But a babbling summer stream?
What our wise philosophy
But the glancing of a dream?
Only when the sun of love
Melts the scattered stars of thought;
Only when we live above
What the dim-eyed world hath taught;
Only when our souls are fed
By the Fount which gave them birth,
And by inspiration led,
Which they never drew from earth,
We like parted drops of rain
Swelling till they meet and run,
Shall be all absorbed again,
Melting, flowing into one.
To the Face Seen in the Moon: Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was the leading American advocate for women's rights in the early 19th century, and, as a brilliant scholar and close friend of Emerson and other Transcendentalists, became editor of their publication The Dial from 1840 to 1844. She included her poem "To the Face Seen in the Moon" in a letter to her lover James Nathan, who already had a child by another woman and was rather jerking her around. Fuller has been so masculinized by history, so deprived of feminine qualities, that I thought she deserved a kind of jazzy torch ballad, a song that would bring her love longings to the fore. I set only the first half of this long poem; the second half uses a contrasting and less musical syllabic scheme.
To the Face Seen in the Moon
Margaret Fuller (1810-1840)
Oft, from the shadows of my earthly sphere,
I looked to thee, orb of pale pearly light,
To loose the weariness of doubt and fear
In thy soft mother-smile so pensive bright,
Thou seemedst far and safe and chastely living
Graceful and thoughtful, loving, beauty-giving,
But, if I steadfast gaze upon thy face
A human secret, like my own, I trace,
For, through the woman's smile looks the male eye
So mildly, steadfastly but mournfully
He holds the bush to point us to his cave,
Teaching anew the truth so bright, so grave
Escape not from the middle of the earth.
Through mortal pangs to win immortal birth,
Both man and woman, from the natural womb
Must slowly win the secrets of the tomb,
And then, together rising fragrant, clear,
The worthy Angel of a better sphere,
Diana's beauty shows how Hecate wrought,
Apollo's lustre rays the zodiac thought
(In Leo regal, as in Virgo fair,
As Scorpio's secret, as the Archer rare,)
In unpolluted beauty mutual shine
Earth, Moon and Sun the Human thought Divine,
For Earth is purged by tameless central fire,
And Moon in man has told her hid desire,
And Time has found himself eternal Sire
And the Sun sings All on his ray-strung lyre....
The Rhodora: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) is today, or course, more than anyone else the public face of Transcendentalism, the central figure and famous lecturer whose essays (along with Thoreau's writings) are all most people know of the movement. His 1847 poem "The Rhodora" is quoted by Charles Ives in Essays Before a Sonata, where I first encountered it.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals fallen in the pool
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.
Indeed, Indeed I Cannot Tell: Thoreau's poems vary greatly in quality. "Indeed, Indeed I Cannot Tell" was included in an 1852 essay called "Love" that Thoreau sent to a Mr. Harrison Blake of Worcester, Mass., in execution of a promise. In the essay he muses on the difficulty of love, and notes that "There is more of good nature than of good sense at the bottom of most marriages." Hatred was something Thoreau thought about often, it seems. He confided to his 1851 Journal that "I love my friends very much, but I find that it is of no use to go see them. I hate them commonly when I am near."
Indeed, Indeed I Cannot Tell
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Indeed indeed, I cannot tell,
Though I ponder on it well,
Which were easier to state,
All my love or all my hate.
Surely, surely, thou wilt trust me
When I say thou dost disgust me.
O, I hate thee with a hate
That would fain annihilate;
Yet sometimes against my will,
My dear friend, I love thee still.
It were treason to our love,
And a sin to God above,
One iota to abate
Of a pure impartial hate.
The Columbine: I have written elsewhere at length on Jones Very, the possibly mad poet whose poems I set in my chorus-and-orchestra piece Transcendental Sonnets. Written on June 9, 1838, "The Columbine" is a meditation on achieving identification with a flower, a kind of Zen "lilies of the field" sermon. Since the columbine is a flower that takes the shape of a two flowers of different colors, one inside the other, I fashioned the accompaniment from pairs of mismatched triads that gradually separate as the voice and piano achieve harmonic union.
Jones Very (1813-1880)
Still, still my eye will gaze long fixed on thee,
Till I forget that I am called a man,
And at thy side fast-rooted seem to be,
And the breeze comes my cheek with thine to fan.
Upon this craggy hill our life shall pass,
A life of summer days and summer joys,
Nodding our honey-bells mid pliant grass
In which the bee half hid his time employs;
And here we'll drink with thirsty pores the rain,
And turn dew-sprinkled to the rising sun,
And look when in the flaming west again
His orb across the heaven its path has run;
Here left in darkness on the rocky steep,
My weary eyes shall close like folding flowers in sleep.
The Garden: This 1852 poem expresses the frequent Transcendentalist theme of finding religious inspiration in nature, but also seems to point to Cranch's growing disillusionment with the ministry, which he eventually abandoned. I have set only the first sonnet of two; the second is a grumpier complaint about the limited relevance of the clergy, which would have required a less idyllic mood.
The Garden (1852)
Naught know we but the heart of summer here.
On the tree-shadowed velvet lawn I lie,
And dream up through the close leaves to the sky,
And weave Arcadian visions in a sphere
Of peace. The steaming heat broods all around,
But only lends a quiet to the hours.
The aromatic life of countless flowers,
The singing of a hundred birds, the sound
Of rustling leaves, go pulsing through the green
Of opening vistas in the garden walks.
Dear Summer, on thy balmy breast I lean,
And care not how the moralist toils or talks;
Repose and Beauty preach a gospel too,
Deep as that sterner creed the Apostles knew....
Questionings (The Idealist): A leading scholar of German literature, Frederick Henry Hedge (1805-1890) was so central to the Transcendentalist movement that the Transcendentalist Club, which began meeting in 1836, was originally referred to informally as "Hedge's Club." He was not a poet by inclination, but during a ride in a mail coach from his pastorate in Bangor to Boston, he watched the stars, and upon his arrival wrote the following lines, his only poem (thus I have set his complete poetry to music). He kept his distance from The Dial for fear of antagonizing his Bangor Unitarian parishioners, but he did allow Fuller to publish this poem in the Dial issue of January, 1841. Like Cranch's "Enosis," it is a poetized epistemological essay, an articulate statement of the principle of solipsism and the difficulty of knowing the outer world through our senses.
Questionings (The Idealist)
By Frederic Henry Hedge (1805-1890)
Hath this world, without me wrought,
Other substance than my thought?
Lives it by my sense alone,
Or by essence of its own?
Will its life, with mine begun,
Cease to be when that is done,
Or another consciousness
With the self-same forms impress?
Doth yon fireball, poised in air,
Hang by my permission there?
Are the clouds that wander by
But the offspring of mine eye,
Born with every glance I cast,
Perishing when that is past?
And those thousand, thousand eyes,
Scattered through the twinkling skies,
Do they draw their life from mine,
Or of their own beauty shine?
Now I close my eyes, my ears,
And creation disappears;
Yet if I but speak the word,
All creation is restored.
Or, more wonderful, within
New creations do begin;
Hues more bright and forms more rare
Than reality doth wear
Flash across my inward sense,
Born of the mind's omnipotence.
Soul! that all informest, say!
Shall these glories pass away?
Will those planets cease to blaze
When these eyes no longer gaze
And the life of things be o'er
When these pulses beat no more?
Thought! that in me works and lives, -
Life to all things living gives, -
Art thou not thyself, perchance,
But the universe in trance?
A reflection inly flung
By that world thou fanciedst sprung
From thyself - thyself a dream -
Of the world's thinking thou the theme.
Be it thus, or be thy birth
From a source above the earth -
Be thou matter, be thou mind,
In thee alone myself I find,
And through thee alone, for me,
Hath this world reality.
Therefore, in thee will I live,
To thee all myself will give,
Losing still, that I may find
This bounded self in boundless Mind.
The appendix to Transcendentalist Songs contains two brief songs that I wrote many years ago. One is a quick setting of a little poem found in Thoreau's Journal of 1838, which I set in 1984 when I was first considering a Transcendentalist song cycle:
In the Busy Streets
In the busy streets, domains of trade,
Man is a surly porter, or a vain and hectoring bully,
Who can claim no nearer kindredship with me
Than brotherhood by law.
The other is a poem by Ellen Sturgis Hooper (1812-1848), friend of Margaret Fuller and Emerson, which was published in The Dial in 1840:
I Slept, and Dreamed that Life Was Beauty
I slept, and dreamed that life was Beauty;
I woke, and found that life was Duty.
Was thy dream then a shadowy lie?
Toil on, sad heart, courageously,
And thou shalt find thy dream to be
A noonday light and truth to thee.
These two songs can be mixed in with or omitted from the others as the performer(s) wish(es).
- Kyle Gann
Duration: 26 minutes total
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