Three Choral Songs on James Joyce
During the winter/spring of 2019, I wrote a cycle of ten art songs on poems by James Joyce. I later arranged three of those settings—Night Piece, Strings in the Earth and Air, and Bahnhofstrasse—for SATB chorus with high voice solo and piano accompaniment for the Washington Master Chorale's 10th Anniversary Season opening concert. They premiered on October 27, 2019 at the Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C. under the direction of Maestro Thomas Colohan, artistic director of the Chorale.
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.” I also wrote an alternate arrangement with piano accompaniment for choral conductors who prefer an accompanied version.
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 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.
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.
Bahnhofstrasse is an existential piece about the loss of youth. The title refers to the posh Zurich district and train station where in August 1917 Joyce suffered a sudden and painful attack of lumbago, later compounded with increasing blindness as a result of glaucoma. The four vocal lines float wistfully over a minimalist piano accompaniment that steadily reiterates a simple, eerie motif as the poet’s failing eyes mock his deteriorating youthfulness.
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
YEAR OF COMPOSITION
SATB Chorus, Soprano Solo & Piano
American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP)
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