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Music Text

Mark Strand, James Merrill, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Burns (E)

Abbreviations (PDF)


Boosey & Hawkes

This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.


World Premiere
Alice Tully Hall, New York, New York
Kurt Ollmann, bar/Sharon Isbin, gtr/ Fred Sherry,vlc/David Shifrin, cl
Composer's Notes

These eight poems by four poets, two dead and two quick, combine to form a brief life-story, mainly about loss: loss of childhood and snow, of love and idols, and of our planet’s forests. The authors may not feel this common thread; but for me, the ever-searching song-composer, their poems together provide a needed singability while speaking to my current condition of sadness. (I had just finished a jolly cycle when I began this piece. My catalog over the years seems built on contrasting pairs, sad alternating with merry, infinitely.)

The voices of the two dead British Islanders are the most hopeless. Indeed, the verses by Burns are perhaps the most plaintive ever penned in English – or Scottish – if only because of a reiterated use of that most dangerous word: O. And the stanzas of Hopkins evoke the first songs I ever made on his poetry nearly 50 years ago, while reflecting man-made ecological mischief, timely as tomorrow’s newspaper printed on desiccated trees. ("After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.")

The voices of the two living Americans are less despairing. Mark Strand’s wistfulness, "How can I sing when I haven’t the heart," is as old as the Psalmist who paradoxically made a poem out of being unable to make a poem. James Merrill too creates art from what no longer exists – the past – and puts that inability to the test when in the present, "Love buries itself in me."

Like all song-writers, who are really cannibals, I depend on these bards whose work is finished long before musicians show up to change it, despite itself, into music. But the interaction is crucial, we need to go on. "We all have reasons for moving,’ says Mark Strand. "I move/to keep things whole."

This suite’s genesis is Sharon Isbin who wanted something for just guitar and voice. I persuaded her to let me add clarinet and cello. Thereupon I composed the cycle during January and February of 1994, on the islands of Nantucket and Manhattan.

—Ned Rorem, 1994

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