I am writing this as a break from working on a new motet for Emmanuel Church, the latest in a series of pieces I have made over the last two decades for that remarkable community and its remarkable musical traditions. The text is a George Herbert poem, the same one that Vaughan Williams used in the Five Mystical Songs:
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joyes in love.
I believe my colleague Carson Cooman has set the text as well. I am sure there must be other composers who have been attracted to the lapidary quality of this poem.
I am working a little differently from my customary process of keeping one eye on the text while composing and taking the form of the poem as a compositional constraint. Here I find myself – at least in portions of the piece – working out the musical shapes first, then fitting text to those shapes. Of course, the musical motifs were first suggested by the rhythms and inflections of the poem, but I am letting musical considerations determine how long a section goes or what dramatic contour it projects, rather than the piece being fundamentally text-driven. I wouldn’t call it a deconstruction; what I am doing is rather more mild-mannered than that. But I can’t recall when I have treated a poem in quite such a non-linear manner. It’s a way of breaking free of a tightly circumscribed poetic form, I suppose.
If I finish this soon enough, it will be heard at the Sunday Eucharist of Emmanuel Church, Boston, on January 26. Time to get back to work.