The second of a series of blog essays related to the performance of my setting of Wallace Stevens’ Sea Surface Full of Clouds.

In my first essay I promised some form of analysis of the poem and its musical setting.

The poem is in five stanzas, each containing 18 symmetrically spaced lines.  Here is the first stanza


In that November off Tehuantepec

The slopping of the sea grew still one night.

And in the morning summer hued the deck

And made one think of rosy chocolate

And gilt umbrellas.  Paradisal green

Gave suavity to the perplexed machine


Of ocean, which like limpid water lay.

Who, then, in that ambrosial latitude

Out of the light evolved the moving blooms,

Who, then, evolved the sea-blooms from the clouds

Diffusing balm in that Pacific calm?

C’etait mon enfant, mon bijou, mon ame.


The sea-clouds whitened far below the calm

And moved, as blooms move, in the swimming green

And in its watery radiance, while the hue

Of heaven in an antique reflection rolled

Round those flotillas. And sometimes the sea

Poured brilliant iris on the glistening blue.

The other four stanzas are arrayed in a similar pattern.  The words in bold appear in the same place in every stanza.  The entire twelfth line in each stanza is in FrenchThis parallelism between the stanzas is the overriding feature of the poem as it meets the eye.  This degree of parallelism has no other examples in the poetry I am aware of, but it has a profound equivalence in a musical form often practiced by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and their contemporaries and revived by Brahms:  the theme and variations, where the rhythm of the succession of chords contained in the theme is duplicated by each variation.

Stevens, whose passion for music is widely reported, has placed the words I have designated in bold, like the specific chords within the theme which are to return in each variation.    Having done so, he allows each stanza, like one of Brahms’ variations, evoke a particular state of mind.

And, just as the theme comes to a centering conclusion: the tonic chord, as musicians call it; so does each variation.   In Stevens’ iteration, each variation (stanza) represents a kind of journey of the soul, but each, like the theme, returns safely to the tonic…a spiritually centering process the five-fold recurrence of which gives a note of profound reassurance.

The Harmony of this setting

The tonic of this setting is C Major.   Since I have chosen to begin each stanza (including the first) more as a questing for, rather than the achievement of, spiritual repose; the voices start with an A minor chord.  I therefore have appended an introduction to let the dominion of C major to be known and absorbed first.

The central harmonic feature of all five stanzas is that shortly before its end, the same active, directed chord points the way back to C major after the various moods invoked by each stanza have run their course.   This is the dominant seventh built on D; what music theorists call the five7 of five, or V7/V. This chord pulls you home by way of the dominant or V…in this case the chord on G.  But, in every stanza of the poem, the infusion of the blue of heaven requires some movement on the sea-surface before calm is finally restored.   In each of the stanzas here, the chord on D lands, in the bass, on G as expected, but the rest of the G chord is delayed (and, in this case, cancelled!).  We hear instead the E and C (the other members of the tonic, not the dominant chord) but the expected “resolution” of those notes to D and B never occurs.  Instead, that “cadential 6/4” chord, arrived at as though its bass note “V” is its defining member…moves to IV ( which it would do if the tonic note, C, were its defining member.    (Footnote: Schenkerians and non-Schenkerians argue over whether this chord, should be named by its eventual function, which in almost every case, but not in this one, is V, or whether to name it for its nomenclature: the members of the tonic chord. In all five stanzas here, it departs as a I followed by a “Plagal cadence”: IV-I.)

The other obvious reference to music in the poem is the way the moods of the individual stanzas seem to replicate the contrasting moods of the movements of a symphony or sonata.  The third stanza is the slow movement one expects in every symphony.   The fifth stanza is the scherzo.  The first stanza is an andante comodo.  The second and fourth, after threatening slow introductions become rapid and agitated.  Even without music, I think the third stanza must slow the reader down, while the fifth stanza would evoke a tone of mockery.  To me, it is the third stanza, the romantic, erotic one that is at the heart of the poem, the one most calling for music.  It has its own key, Ab major, and the harmonies of Ab major provide a kind of counter-center to the piece…introduced within the first stanza for the question “who?”  and brought forth whenever such a “counter-center” seems appropriate.  For the most part, the music except at the reference points at the ends of stanzas, throughout the Ab major third stanza,  and in the asking the question of the self “who?” consists of rapidly changing tonicizations (momentary suggestions of different keys).  Though I worked hard to find the right chords to lead into the D7 at heaven’s  blue intervention at the end of each stanza…the desired effect was to try to make it feel both surprising and right each time.

The wonderful system of chords and keys, evolved over centuries, provided a splendid canvas to recreate and,  perhaps even amplify, the message  of this extraordinary poem.  Without it I could not have even tried.   It is a great loss for our art that so many have proclaimed that this system of chords and tonalities has been “annihilated” and that so many, heeding the supposed call of Schoenberg and his followers, have accepted such a proclamation as fact.  I would rather follow another statement attributed to Schoenberg:  “There is still a lot of good music to be written in C major.

(Footnote: the word “annihilated” repeated more than once in describing tonality was published in an article by Joan Peyser, in the Columbia Forum, shortly before she became the Editor of the Musical Quarterly.)