Preludes of T.S. Eliot
I started my Preludes of T.S. Eliot in February 2020. I was halfway through one movement when Lauren and I flew to Italy to attend the Florence wedding of two dear friends.
We were in Tuscany when news broke that the Coronavirus had led to the creation of “red zones” in the hardest-hit regions of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto in the north. Italy went into full lockdown a few days after we crossed the French-Italian border on our way to Avignon.
We returned home mid-March, just in the nick of time as flights across the Atlantic were becoming scarcer.
While observing the fourteen-day “self-quarantine” recommended by the CDC, I went back to work on my Preludes.
But now I had a wholly different perspective.
Written for a chamber ensemble of high voice, cello and piano, Preludes is a setting of Eliot’s four-part poem that explores the feelings of isolation and monotony that accompany modern urban life.
As in much of Eliot’s early poetry, the drab cityscape of Preludes is the star of the show. The very sounds of the words, with their hard consonants and blunt dissonant rhymes, punctuate the harshness of human existence in the modern city. The comforts of industrial society are there—for some—but they can’t console the spiritual desolation of the city’s inhabitants.
It must have been kismet because the quarantine helped me experience firsthand Eliot’s sentiment, the feelings of loneliness and civilizational malaise. I think I succeeded in musically rendering the “grimy scraps” and “vacant lots” and “conscience of a blackened street.”
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed's edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.
His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
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