Kyle Gann’s Transcendental Sonnets

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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.

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Listening List

The Son, from Kyle Gann’s Transcendental Sonnets (© Kyle Gann, 2001. With kind permission.)

Text:

The Son (November 17, 1838)
—John Very

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.

Gann wrote of the work:

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Kyle Gann’s Transcendental Sonnets

  1. David N

    Well, ‘The Son’ is certainly mellifluous and maybe represents a certain type of American openness (akin to the English pastoral idiom, though I can’t think who among our composers this side of the pond writes like that now). The choir, as so often, though, needs subtitling…maybe you could put the text up beneath the music?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: “Mellifluous” is a nice word for “The Son,” as is “openness.” The Sonnets also remind us of English pastoral works, which I’m sure helps account for how very much we’re enjoying them. I think it may be unusual for composers to write like this today in the US, as well. As Kyle notes in the passage I quoted from his program notes, “the songs suggest historical idioms more directly than my other music.” Part of the charm of the Transcendental Sonnets for me is his willingness–as well as his capability–to write in a style suggested by the text, rather than to try to bend the text to his will, regardless. Thank you, also, for your suggestion to include the text in the post, on which I’ve followed up, as you’ll see. I should have thought to do that myself!

  2. David N

    You are too good to indulge my trying to crack the whip…but thank you. And yes, that idea of serving the style of the text is also the new in the old. Far more singular than following other rules…

    On a vaguely related topic, there’s an excellent series on the BBC World Service about Walt Whitman, with some beautiful readings making me wonder why we don’t know him nearly so well over here. So I’m going to catch up. Ditto on Thoreau, a big anthology of whose writings I’ve had on the to-read pile for too long. These poets are so universal, yet too much claimed as national to travel much. Our loss.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: But you weren’t whip-cracking, rather making a good suggestion! The Whitman series sounds wonderful. I, too, have anthologies–of Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson and also Hawthorne–and I’ve also only taken little dips into them here and there. Each time, it’s worthwhile–for me, particularly Emerson. I figure, over time, the little dips will accumulate. That, at least, is my hope. (I’m quoting a favorite line from Ashbery . . .).

  3. shoreacres

    This is absolutely beautiful, Susan. It reminded me of Eric Whitacre’s setting of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Somehow, the original of that still is available. You can listen to it here. (It had to be rewritten because of conflicts with the Frost estate, and now is performed under the name “Sleep,” but I much prefer the original.)

    Jones Very is new to me. I especially like his poem, “The Latter Rain.” Thanks for the introduction to his work.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: I’m so pleased you enjoyed it, too! I didn’t know Jones Very’s name, let alone his poems, so the Transcendental Sonnets made a nice introduction for me, too. Thanks, in return, for noting “The Latter Rain” and for the link to “Sleep.”

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