Hymn to the Sensesop. 72 (1990)
"The Body of the World" by John Fuller (E)
Boosey & Hawkes
Trinity College, Cambridge
Cambridge University Music Society / Stephen Cleobury
When invited by Stephen Cleobury back in 1985 to write something for the Cambridge University Music Society chorus, I agreed with enthusiasm. But the attempt foundered for lack of a text. I wanted to make a kind of secular Benedicite – a song of praise hymning the five senses as the focal points of our contact with the world. I wanted in Whitman’s phrase to "sing the body electric", and Whitman with his generous embrace of a wide sensual spectrum seemed to be just the right poet. For instance:
‘seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles…’
‘what is less or more than a touch?’
‘delicate sniffs of sea-breeze, smells of sedgy grass, and fields by the shore…’
‘that the cool drink from the well tastes so good, that blackberries are so flavoursome and juicy…’
But in the end such explicitness fails to suggest; what the words state impedes music’s power to evoke. And besides, there is the problem of his lack of rhythm and stanza – he’s all billowing clouds, however intoxicating.
The next idea was an anthology of poems from many epochs. Though this led to lots of enjoyable reading, particularly in and around the renaissance ‘Banquet of the Senses’, none of the poems really appealed for musical purposes. It did yield one happy idea, the notion of a Common Sense, not signifying forthright mother-wit as nowadays, so much as a union of the five bodily senses to make one comprehensive understanding. Then the idea began to get lost in alchemy, numerology, superstitions, signs of the Zodiac, etc, and eventually petered out altogether.
In 1990 I tried again, on a less ambitious scale and with texts tailor-made for the purpose by John Fuller – elegant, shapely, metaphysically witty, yet by no means lacking Whitmanesque surge. Each of the senses is allied to one of the five continents by association (and also, with the Americas, by physical shape). The complete sensual ‘body of the world’ (the poet’s title) is then crowned by a brisk salute to Common Sense (in both senses) and enclosed by a line derived from Psalm 34 (v.8 – ‘O taste and see how gracious the Lord is’), naively expanded to cover all five. This line recurs about halfway into the whole piece, and a Motto of four lines also comes three times, the first two identical in words, the last turning them inside-out.
So the overall order is Prelude (invitation to the senses); Motto; I Touch; (metaphorically linking the human body to Africa); II Smell (set for women’s voices only, and linking this sense to Australia and new birth); III Taste (initially for men’s voices alone, laying siege to the fortress of Asiatic luxury guarded by the women); Interlude (the invitation again); IV Sound (women and men in alternation, the poem linking speech and order with Europe and its troubles, dissolving for the last two stanzas into contralto then soprano solo as word-sound is transformed into music-sound); the Motto again; V Sight (an ardent celebration, á la Whitman, of the Americas as apprehended by the eye); the climactically altered; Motto; then Salut to Common Sense (the body of the world containing all the other); Epilogue (repeating the opening invitation).
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer