Three Choral Songs on James Joyce
In 2019, I wrote a cycle of ten art songs for solo voice that I adapted from my favorite poems by James Joyce. I later arranged three of those settings (Night Piece, Strings in the Earth and Air, and Bahnhofstrasse) for mixed chorus and piano for my dear friend Thomas Colohan, artistic director of the Washington Master Chorale. They made their premiere on October 27, 2019 at the Washington Master Chorale's 10th Anniversary Season opening concert in Washington, DC.
Night Piece, arranged for unaccompanied SATB chorus, begins as a reverent, if not haunting, portrait of “night’s sin-dark nave.” Replete with ecclesiastical imagery, this subdued choral meditation swells into a tender exultation of the night sky with soaring melodies and lush harmonies. Joyce’s characteristic neologisms abound: A star-knell tolls as upsoaring clouds surge voidward, high above the “adoring waste of souls.”
An alternate version with piano accompaniment is also included in this collection.
Strings in the Earth and Air is a light interlude for SATB chorus and high voice solo with sparkling piano accompaniment and impressionist overtones. The song’s sultry solo vocal line emerges from a progression of minor and dominant 9th chords in this jazz-inspired hymn of nature.
Bahnhofstrasse is an existential piece. In 1917, James Joyce suffered a sudden and painful attack of lumbago while in the posh Bahnhofstrasse district of Zurich, Switzerland. His condition was compounded by increasing blindness as a result of glaucoma. Bahnhofstrasse underscores Joyce’s angst as he discovers youth is fleeting. Yet, being middle-aged, he realizes he’s not old enough to benefit from the "old heart's wisdom" that comes in the autumn of life. The four vocal lines float wistfully over a minimalist accompaniment that reiterates a simple, eerie motif.
Gaunt in gloom
The pale stars their torches,
Ghost-fires from heaven's far verges faint illume—
Arches on soaring arches—
Night's sin-dark nave.
The lost hosts awaken
To service, till
In moonless gloom each lapses, muted, dim,
Raised when she has and shaken
And long and loud
To night's nave upsoaring,
A star-knell tolls—
As the bleak incense surges, cloud on cloud,
Voidward from the adoring
Waste of souls.
STRINGS IN THE EARTH AND AIR
Strings in the earth and air
Make music sweet;
Strings by the river where
The willows meet.
There's music along the river
For Love wanders there,
Pale flowers on his mantle,
Dark leaves on his hair.
All softly playing,
With head to the music bent,
And fingers straying
Upon an instrument.
The eyes that mock me sign the way
Whereto I pass at eve of day.
Grey way whose violet signals are
The trysting and the twining star.
Ah star of evil! star of pain!
Highhearted youth comes not again.
Nor old heart's wisdom yet to know
The signs that mock me as I go.
James Joyce, 1882 - 1941