A Brief History of Love and Poetry
These pieces started as assignments from David Conte, who suggested that I set existing poetry to music for voice and piano. Over the next several months I assembled a series of poems that spanned over a century of poetic thought, all exploring various aspects of love. I gravitated towards poems that had some theatrical element to them, well defined characters, a narrative, perhaps a twist. Poems that cried out for a performance and would require acting as well as singing.
I was interested in the notion of a piece working with multiple timelines. On the one hand there is the timeline of the poems, ranging from the 1850s through 1993. But there is also the timeline of the lives of the characters we’re watching. We see the early blush of love, the pain of heartbreak, the realization (and consummation) of true love and finally the wistful recollections of the life that two people have built together. The fact that this chronological tale can be told using language that skips freely between a number of distinctly different eras speaks to the universality of this particular human experience.
When I Was One And Twenty – A. E. Hausman – 1886
This portrayal of a callow, lovesick young man perfectly captures (and, I believe, lampoons) the foolhardy arrogance of a youth who imagines himself worldly. I drew inspiration from Tom’s “Here I Stand” aria from act 1 of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, sensing an affinity between these two confident fellows. In the first stanza, the piano is right there with the voice, straightforwardly supporting everything the lad is saying. In the second stanza, while the vocal line assumes a more mournful timber, tonal uncertainty in the accompaniment leads one to believe that perhaps all isn’t as it seems.
Heart, we will forget him! – Emily Dickenson – 1858
Dickenson’s poem is a bittersweet dramatization of a mind’s futile efforts to rule over the heart. Our heroine is trying to think herself out of love, which would be a nifty trick if it were at all possible. But despite the singer’s attempts to just snap herself out of it with sudden outbursts and angular stabs at the piano, the intoxicating memory of their time together pulls her back into lovesick revelry.
Waiting – Ramond Carver – 1983
This poem starts out sounding more like the result of a Google Maps search than a love poem, yet it gradually reveals that the ultimate destination is less a location than a state of being. I imagine this plain speaking good samaritan as a distant relative of the wise man who warned our young lad in When I Was One and Twenty. The music keeps the brusque, just the facts ma’am feel with sudden transitions into dreamy otherworld-ness. As we get closer to our arrival it becomes increasingly more rhapsodic, the eighth note rat-a-tat in the piano becomes a chime-like figure as we learn the wonders in store for us when we finally arrive.
The Kiss – Anne Sexton – 1969
The frank sensuality of Sexton’s work is on full display in this portrait of a woman in the throes of a new love affair. I chose to use a number of musical idioms well suited to these contemporary sensibilities, alternating between sultry blues, and elated ragtime. But emotions this strong once unleashed are not without their dangers, as the poet herself warns in the final line. The music is often off kilter, unpredictable, prone to outbursts, sometimes unhinged, but always alluring. I am still talking about the music, right?
Once in the 40’s – William Stafford – 1982
There is so much mystery in this poem… what are the 40s? The 1940s? Is the couple in their 40s? Was it 40 degrees? All of the above? It’s a memory poem, a recollection of a dark, cold, otherwise unremarkable night. While it was being lived there was no way of knowing that it would be one of those few moments that for some reason ends up representing a whole chunk of lifetime. And in a brilliant gesture the couple remembers themselves imagining their own future, which is now, of course, their present. In my setting, I try to invoke a vast chill. The couple remembers separately, sometimes interrupting each other while telling their story. The piano becomes positively austere as the couple’s voices intone their memories like a hymn. Suddenly this spare accompaniment blossoms into lush harmonies and the voices surge with a passion that seems to come from nowhere, but, we eventually realize, was there all along, obvious only to them. For a brief moment, we get a glimpse of what their love looks like from the inside.