Preludes of T.S. Eliot
When I composed Preludes of T.S. Eliot, the world was enmeshed in "social distancing," "shelter-in-place," and other euphemisms of social isolation. The threat of coronavirus was causing people to shut themselves in from one another in an attempt to stay safe. But as we turned more and more inward, we became practically myopic, even terrified of encountering other human beings.
Eliot’s four-part poem examines this crucible of isolation in modern urban life that we all have experienced. As in much of Eliot’s early poetry, the drab cityscape is the star of the show. The very sounds of the words, with their hard consonants and blunt dissonant rhymes, very much dictate the melancholic mood and melodic character of my musical setting.
I scored it for high voice, cello and piano. In turns, it is both literal and impressionistic and a fitting prelude to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Eliot’s modernist opus that I adapted into a rhapsody for voice and orchestra in 2017.
The civilizational malaise depicted in Preludes speaks to us more clearly now, perhaps, than it did over 100 years ago (Eliot composed the poem between 1910 and 1911, before the eruption of World War I). In the 21st century, the “grimy scraps” and “vacant lots” and “conscience of a blackened street” haunt us still.
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.