and what if they eat clouds, and drink wind, they have not been without service to the race of man
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Kyle Gann’s Transcendental Sonnets are settings of sonnets by the Transcendentalist poet Jones Very (1813-1880). Jones Very’s story is one of possible madness and a short, ecstatic period in which he wrote what are regarded as the best of his poems. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in reviewing a book of Very’s poems, wrote of him:
The author, plainly a man of a pure and kindly temper, casts himself into the state of the high and transcendental obedience to the inward Spirit. He has apparently made up his mind to follow all its leadings, though he should be taxed with absurdity or even with insanity. In this enthusiasm he writes most of these verses, which rather flow through him than from him.
Gann wrote that, while he was composing the Transcendental Sonnets, he had the feeling that “the spirit of Jones Very had been following me for many years, impelling me toward Walden Pond, to Emerson’s house, to the bookstores of Concord, Massachusetts, endlessly asking, When are you going to write my songs?”
In our house, the final arbiter of the best music isn’t me, but J., who greets most of the music I put on with polite silence (aside from the occasional request to turn the volume down). Actual compliments by J. are rare indeed, so it was an occasion to mark when I put on Transcendental Sonnets and she said, “Now, that’s nice.” She’s right. They’re favorite listening in our house. I hope you’ll like them, too.
The Son, from Kyle Gann’s Transcendental Sonnets (© Kyle Gann, 2001. With kind permission.)
The Son (November 17, 1838)
Father, I wait thy word. The sun doth stand
Beneath the mingling line of night and day,
A listening servant, waiting thy command
To roll rejoicing on its silent way;
The tongue of time abides the appointed hour,
Till on our ear its solemn warnings fall;
The heavy cloud withholds the pelting shower,
Then every drop speeds onward at thy call;
The bird reposes on the yielding bough,
With breast unswollen by the tide of song;
So does my spirit wait thy presence now
To pour thy praise in quickening life along,
Chiding with voice divine man’s lengthened sleep,
While round the Unuttered Word and Love their vigils keep.
In setting texts I always allow the text to lead, and to suggest the style of the music, with the result here that the songs suggest historical idioms more directly than my other music. The project, as I saw it, was to find within the context of postminimalism a style, or several styles, of contrapuntal choral singing which would be gratifying to sing. The first movement, “The Son,” was drawn very much from the structure of the poem, with the addition that the four parts of the choir each introduce their lines of text independently, in echoing but contrasting melodies. The remaining four movements follow – though always within a postminimalist context, with its limitation of harmonic materials – a stylistic progression from the music of Very’s youth to the present day. “Enoch” represents the 18th-century American hymn and fuging tune; “Love” a 19th-century romantic choral style; “Faith” a more dissonant, modernist relationship of harmonies; and “The Word” a postmodern conception fusing aspects of minimalism with the rhythmic ideas of Henry Cowell and Conlon Nancarrow, attempting more than the others to capture Very’s ecstatic state. I hope that this symphony of American psalms will be a testament to our native, Yankee brand of spirituality.
Audio of the complete Transcendental Sonnets, the text, score, and additional information about Very and the work are available on Kyle Gann’s website here.
Credits: The quotations may be found at the sources linked in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine. These were taken at or near the Central Park Conservatory on May 2, 2015.