(The Poetry of Music)
The first and only time, in my life so far, that a piece of music has inspired me to write a poem directly about it, was when I heard a piece of music, composed by Sir John Tavener in 1982 and performed by Harry Christophers’ The Sixteen, whose eighteen members produce the most sublime choral sound I’ve ever heard. It was only by listening to the music, not particularly paying much attention to the words, that I was inspired to write this piece, which is a Haiku Triplet. It wasn’t until a little time after completing the poem, which was originally intended as a devotion to my wife, that I discovered an interesting connection between the music and a famous poet, who inspired Tavener to compose it in the first place. Only when I listened to the words, did I discover that Tavener had based his composition on William Blake‘s poem The Lamb, part of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, published in 1789. A full circle had thus turned, from poem to music and back again. I find it quite stirring that William Blake’s poem inspired John Tavener to write music to it and, in turn, Tavener’s music alone, my own poem, whose theme turns back to Blake’s original, perhaps because I think the wording of my poem can also be interpreted as devotional in a religious sense. My original title was in fact The Lamb, because that is the title of Tavener’s composition.
The most significant feature of this composition, which had the greatest impact on my poetic inspiration, even though I should confess I didn’t particularly like the piece at first, is the music; the way that it cycles alternately between a seemingly discordant, if not quite atonal, series of musical passages and delicious, heart melting harmonies, had the most striking effect on me. It seems simply to mirror the cycles of life’s experience – from its hardest and most difficult periods to its happiest and most joyous moments and, with it, our responsibility to stay strong, particularly for those we love, through good times and bad, from the discordant times to the harmonious ones.
I cannot find a YouTube recording of The Sixteen singing this piece, but because of its brevity and simplicity, it is important to hear it with the purity and perfection of the best voices, in order to capture its depth and spirit, and the Tenebrae Choir, founded by Nigel Short of the famous King’s Singers. Here they provide the nearest thing I can find to this quality:
I think I’ve captured the essence of the Japanese poetic form of haiku, which is the seventeen-syllable 5-7-5 three-line verse structure with a requirement to contain “season words,” or Kigo. The choice of this poetic form was very deliberate, not least because it is, by its very nature, capable of distilling the essence of its subject and because Tavener’s composition is also brief, at only three and a half minutes.
Notwithstanding the background, the fascinating influences, coincidences and connections, this poem was and is dedicated to my wife, with whom I have shared a few highs and lows during our nearly forty years together.
This may seem an odd thing to suggest you do, but, in spite of the fact that the choir is singing Blake’s words, I do like to read my poem (contemplatively), whilst listening to the music at the same time …
I leave it with you.
(Read the Poem)
Footnote: around two years after this was posted, the chamber choir, Fox Valley Voices, in which I sing Bass, took this piece into their repertoire. It is challenging for two reasons. Firstly there is no defined time signature, so there is a lot of ‘rubato’, so the pace is determined at the musical director’s discretion. The last line is usually slowed right down and is over twenty seconds long, without the opportunity to breathe and therefore requires considerable skill in control of the breath to achieve its the sublime effect intended by the composer. Secondly, the piece is atonal and, in places contains some discordant clashing, particularly in the first part of the piece. It gradually unfolds into heart melting harmonies and, albeit in a minor key, a happy ending.