Friday, December 10, 2004


I came circuitously to Samuel Barber's "Hermit Songs," as if to the end of a long pilgrimage whose goal was both inarticulated and somehow inevitable.

Some years ago my brilliant husband, the jazz composer Darrell Katz, wrote a beautiful song, "Like A Wind." It's a setting of a short passage from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. He loves that book, and rereads it continuously. I can think of only one other book that he lobbied more tirelessly for: John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor. Lobbied, I say ? Harangued me to read, is what I mean. Until I grew weary of harangue and picked up his dog-eared, annotated copy and sulked off to do my beloved's bidding.

After multiple attempts spanning several years that all foundered on a tedious and long-winded early expository chapter about Maryland history, I finally finished it. Oh, the sacrifices we make in marriage. The harangues stopped. I will say no more. Although still, today, he shakes his head and gazes at me sadly when I admit that I have yet to read Barth's Chimera. Which inspired another of his brilliant pieces.

Anyway, DK has been mulling a more extended work using more of Winesburg. He was discussing the task of setting an extended prose text to music with a colleague who insisted he must drop everything and listen to Samuel Barber's "Knoxville, Summer of 1915." DK came home wildly enthused, obtained Dawn Upshaw's performance of it, and a few days later told me I must listen to it right away.

I was intrigued. "Knoxville" is the prologue to James Agee's A Death in the Family. "Knoxville" was originally written as a separate, short prose poem and, posthumously I believe, included as the introduction to the novel. I read the novel years ago. So long ago I could remember very little about it. So I dug out my copy, a small, dun, 1960's paperback, the pages yellowing and smelling pleasantly of mold and put it on the things to read pile by my bed.

Then I sat down with the CD liner notes and listened to Barber's setting.

The piece is a child's-eyes view of a summer night spent in the midst of an extended loving family. It moves from homely, cozy close-up of family gathered for small talk on quilts set out on the lawn to the awesome and frightening array of cosmos arched above them ; from the child's comfort in his mother "who is good to me" and his father "who is good to me" to his pained wonderment at the simple, astonishing fact of being there alive on earth on that summer night, and of being loved by beings larger than him who, however, "cannot tell me who I am."

The music is gorgeously lyrical, heartbreakingly sweet, a full expression of the contentments and urgently inquisitive longings of childhood. It's an amazing setting of a beautiful text.

Those of you familiar with my various obsessions and proclivities can imagine how excited I was when I learned Barber wrote a song cycle called "Hermit Songs". I immediately obtained a CD of Leontyne Price's performing them, and have been listening to them this week.

These are ten songs based on "anonymous Irish texts," translated by WH Auden, Chester Kallman, Sean O'Faolin and H. Mumford Jones. They range from the brief and mildly bawdy "Promiscuity"

I do not know with whom Edan will sleep,
but I do know that fair Edan will not sleep alone,"

an acerbic and strange little song with a beautifully sour melody,

through the merry monkish drinking song "The Heavenly Banquet,"

I would like to have the men of heaven in my own house
with vats of good cheer laid out for them.
I would like to have a great lake of beer for the King of Kings...

and the gentle, sweet "The Monk And His Cat,"

Pangur, white Pangur,
How happy we are
Alone together, Scholar and cat.

to the absolutely ravishing "The Crucifixion"

At the cry of the first bird
They began to crucify Thee, O Swan !

which, I must warn you, may make you weep for the grief and simplicity embodied in Price's gorgeous performance,

and the final song: "The Desire for Hermitage,"

Ah ! To be all alone in a little cell
with nobody near me;
beloved that pilgrimage before the last pilgrimage to death.
Singing the passing hours to cloudy heaven;
feeding upon dry bread and water from the cold spring.
There will be an end to evil when I am alone
in a lovely little corner among tombs
far from the houses of the great...
Alone I came into the world
alone I shall go from it.

which rises from a quiet, prayerful beginning into a passionate colloquoy of piano and voice, then falls back into quietness, a graceful arc of music.

Such literary and musical pilgrimages do, thank Heaven and its vats of good cheer, transport us "far from the houses of the great."

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