On Sunday, March 3rd, 2024 at 3:00 P.M. at the Society for Ethical Culture, 2 West 64th Street at Central Park West, the New York Virtuoso Singers, conducted by Harold Rosenbaum will be presenting my choral setting of Wallace Stevens’ poem, Sea Surface Full of Clouds. This is the first of three essays to appear in this space with the dual purpose of persuading readers to come to the concert, and offering information about the piece in more detail than would be possible in the actual concert programs.
This first essay deals with the background of my composing this piece and the importance I attribute to it within the totality of my creative work. The second, to appear about a week after this one, will give an analysis of both the poem and the music. The third and last will look at the piece as representing my own rejection of how the aesthetics of modernism has deconstructed the harmonic language of classical music; assessing the loss and, hopefully, pointing to a better future for it.
THE CIRCUMSTANCES SURROUNDING THE COMPOSING OF SEA SURFACE FULL OF CLOUDS
During my sabbatical in 1979, my wife Ellen and I enrolled on a Swann’s Tour of India and Nepal. The three week tour ended with an overnight stay at a wildlife resort called Tiger Tops in the lowlands of Nepal (yes, there are “lowlands” in the southern edge of Nepal, though at about 2,500 feet they would not count as lowlands here). To get there we had to fly in a small plane (it turned out to be a mere helicopter) over high mountain ridges; strict weight limits were imposed: we were to bring no extra clothes or possessions; only a pair of pajamas. Before leaving Katmandu for Tiger Tops we were instructed to pack and check our bags for the return voyage as there would be almost no layover time in Katmandu between our arrival from Tiger Tops and our final departure for home. I brought a few pages of music manuscript paper with me to Tiger Tops but left the music I was working on and the poetry I was setting in Katmandu, to resume work on my way home. Principal among those pieces was a setting, in both Hebrew and English, of the 126th Psalm. The Camp David accords had recently been signed, offering the hope for lasting peace between Israel and a potential Palestinian state. The Prime Minister of Israel had recited this Psalm in celebration, and I was determined to add my own note of celebration.*
On returning to Katmandu I discovered that Ellen had checked everything I was working on directly to New York. Psalm 126 and my other works in progress would have to wait during the more than two days of flights and airport waits that lay ahead of me. But my musical juices were flowing…the thought of idleness for those two days was unbearable. Fortunately, Ellen had kept unchecked a book of poetry to entertain herself on the voyage. It was a collection of Stevens’ poems and, having mercy for my bereft state, that she had accidentally caused, offered me the Stevens volume which I gratefully accepted.
My thought, on beginning to look through the Stevens volume for something to set to music, focused on coming to terms with music’s modernist trend. I was well aware that I didn’t agree with the academic consensus that (in the words of one of its most prominent and respected writers) tonality had been “annihilated”. But in a small part of my output, including my 2nd String Quartet, which I was putting the finishing touches on during that very sabbatical, I acted on the premise “supposing they are right. Is there anything I can do about it?” Perhaps an encounter with Stevens, a favorite lyricist for the musical ultra-moderns, will give me one last chance, following the pull of his text, to see whether I can create something worthwhile within the aesthetics of what is now called “post-tonality”. I skimmed through the book of poems.
And then, to my elation and complete surprise, I found Sea Surface Full of Clouds! Certainly, the modernist could find convivial elements in Stevens’ choices of phrases and words. You don’t find “crystalline pendentives” or “the spangling must” in older verse. But that was not the point of this poem or the source of its beauty and grandeur. What one finds is a classical structure of lines and stanzas set up as the equivalent of a musical Theme and Variations…and a classical one at that…the kind of set of variations that keeps the rhythm of the chord changes intact from theme to variation to variation. The orderliness of the structure cut through and tore away the modernist imperative to dismantle harmony. Here were 5 stanzas, each consisting of 18 lines of the right number of syllables, some even with carefully placed rhymes. Furthermore, certain key words and ideas showed up at the same place in each stanza, like specific chords from the middle of the theme that come up in the same place in each variation, as posited by the form. Furthermore, each stanza ends in a similar resolution, as the images projected in each verse are dissipated and “the blue of heaven” returns to the surface of the sea.
I found also a traditional musical parallel in the character of the images projected on the sea’s surface by the clouds when comparing the five stanzas. The third stanza…its night images are like the slow movement of a symphony; the fifth stanza are those of a scherzo. The energy, with a note of threat in both the second and fourth stanzas, have symphonic equivalents as well.
In short, here in this poem was a blueprint for music built upon classical design. With enthusiasm I embarked to use the harmonic language of what is generally referred to as “common practice” and have found it to bring out the beauty and spirituality of the poem as it explored the ability of the human soul to imagine emotional ventures in the patterns on the sea, then always find a centering as the clouds depart and heaven’s blue is restored at the end of each stanza.
This direct reference to the typical emotional states: adventure, love, threat, jocularity that the poem evokes may not appeal to the spirit of modernism associated with most of Stevens’ works. To be sure, the Stevens critic generally considered most qualified in the academy, Harold Bloom (and he cites several other prominent critics in his assessment) condemns this poem, and he attributes the ten-year pause in Stevens’ output that followed as Stevens’ concession that his gift has left him. I, rather, see the ten-year pause as occasioned by Stevens’ possible thought that with Sea Surface Full of Clouds, he had “said it all” and could rest on his laurels until new thoughts arose.
In any case, this poem gave me a chance to put in practice to as great an extent as in any setting of mine, my core belief that in setting a poem the composer’s principal obligation is to bring in full relief that which makes the poem meaningful and beautiful. I would hope that had Harold Bloom experienced this poem through the setting that will be heard on March 3rd, he would not have had such a negative feeling about it.
Setting this poem and finding the kernel of “modernist” Stevens’ (to me) greatest work to require tonal music with all its harmony intact, resulted in my reassessing the importance of finding a synthesis between my deepest musical feelings and the promptings of the modernists from my teachers on down. This was the pivotal work. After composing it I would, for better or worse, stick to my own convictions and let the consequences fall where they might. The third essay in this group will explore my reasons for the conviction, not only that what I have done was right for me, but also that the turn away from tonality (the embracing of the idea that tonality has been “annihilated”) has done and is doing classical music itself untold harm.
A brief footnote: My 25th college reunion took place in 1978. At my 50th, a classmate who liked to ask piercing questions, asked me whether I considered the most important decisions I made in my career were made before or after the 25th. To his surprise, I answered immediately: “After. One year after. Setting a Wallace Stevens poem, I discovered to my surprise and delight that there was no need to compromise with the modernists when I composed. That has made more of a difference than any changes in my thinking before or since.”
- *Second footnote: It so happens that the New York Virtuoso Singers and Harold Rosenbaum will be performing my setting of Psalm 126 (which I had to interrupt because it was checked from Katmandu to New York), on September 22nd. Watch this space for details.
If you have read this far and wish to attend the concert, please contact me so that I can arrange for complimentary tickets for you and your companions.