My first encounter with W. B. Yeats’ poem Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen was through Jorge Luis Borges’ Theme of the Traitor and the Hero. Borges’ intention seems to be clear. He wanted to emphasise the theme of his short story – the irony of the cyclical nature of history – by quoting the second section of Yeats’ Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen. Although I was intrigued to discover the whole poem, it was not an easy task for a teenager who lived in Seoul and barely spoke English, since there was no Korean translation.
In 2019, in London, during the pandemic turmoil, I once again encountered Yeats’ poem, this time in its entirety! While reading it, I was quite shocked that the crippled world and the despair and the terror depicted by Yeats in 1919, match perfectly with the world and the time we live in today.
The title of my piece, Upon His Ghostly Solitude, is a quotation from the first section of the poem. It gave me the overwhelmingly strong and vivid inspiration to write an orchestral piece which continuously crosses contrasting atmospheres, from the madness of violence and frenzy to an extremely romantic and even naïve lyricism.
The harmonic theme introduced in the first movement, consisting of four different chords, is the core engine of this piece and is altered and varied in the later movements. As Yeats wrote in the poem, ‘Whirls out new right and wrong, Whirls in the old instead’. Through variations and alterations of the harmonic chords, the piece crosses the boundaries between modality, tonality and atonality.
In the last movement Yeats sings in lamentation, ‘All men are dancers and their tread goes to the barbarous clangour of gong’. So, the music marches toward ultimate destruction while the harmonic, thematic materials from the previous movements are juxtaposed and re-used in twisted and altered shapes.
As if reminding us of the theme of the poem – the irony, and the sadness of the cyclical nature of history – the climax of the first movement with its original harmonic theme appears once again, abruptly, at the moment of ultimate destruction but is cut off violently by the sound of the ‘barbarous gong’. The music returns to its peaceful beginning but is also suddenly interrupted by a scream of despair.
While reading the poem, interestingly, I found more and more resemblances with Alban Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, written around the same time (1915). Like Yeats’ poem, that score also tries to depict the terror and the despair in the crippled world through romantic, expressionist gestures. As a homage to Berg, and to Mahler, I composed waltz and march music for the second and the last movements. Their works have had such a big influence upon me that I have been longing for many years to compose in the two musical forms particularly favoured by those composers.
This piece is a love letter to Yeats and Berg, who suffered in the wounded world but tried to keep their voices and ideas intact even when everything ‘falls apart, and the centre cannot hold’.
Donghoon Shin, 2023
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer.