For mezzo soprano, SATB chorus, and strings. Secular text (settings of selections from Herman Melville’s Civil War poetry)
Difficulty rating (1-5): 5
Difficulty rating (1-5): 5
Listen to a performance by Emily Jaworski, mezzo-soprano soloist, and the New Hampshire Master Chorale, Dan Perkins, conductor
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When I was asked to write a piece commemorating the end of the Civil War for the New Hampshire Master Chorale, I found myself stymied at first. While this is a topic that resonates strongly with me, I felt that I’d already written works for the Master Chorale that explored much of the emotional territory I associate with that conflict. Then their music director, Dan Perkins, mentioned a text he was interested in having me set—Herman Melville’s poem “Shiloh.”
“Shiloh” comes from Melville’s book of poetry about the Civil War, Battle-Pieces. Although Melville’s sympathy for the Union cause is plain from the outset, many of the poems in the book that struck me powerfully—as strange, remote, almost forbidding—are written from what I came to think of as a “God’s-eye” perspective on the war. They blame the tragedies of battle on horrible decisions by human beings with free will on both sides of the conflict—human beings usually far distant from the battlefields where so many young men died.
I took the final stanza of an early poem in Melville’s book, The Conflict of Convictions, as the epigraph for my settings:
YEA, AND NAY--
EACH HATH HIS SAY;
BUT GOD HE KEEPS THE MIDDLE WAY.
NONE WAS BY
WHEN HE SPREAD THE SKY;
WISDOM IS VAIN, AND PROPHESY.——JS
I. THE PORTENT. (1859.)Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.
Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.
II. BALL'S BLUFF. A REVERIE. (OCTOBER, 1861.)One noonday, at my window in the town,
I saw a sight—saddest that eyes can see--
Young soldiers marching lustily
Unto the wars,
With fifes, and flags in mottoed pageantry;
They moved like Juny morning on the wave,
Their hearts were fresh as clover in its prime
(It was the breezy summer time),
Life throbbed so strong,
How should they dream that Death in a rosy clime
Would come to thin their shining throng?
Youth feels immortal, like the gods sublime.
Weeks passed; and at my window, leaving bed,
By night I mused, of easeful sleep bereft,
On those brave boys (Ah War! thy theft);
Some marching feet
Found pause at last by cliffs Potomac cleft;
Wakeful I mused, while in the street
Far footfalls died away till none were left.
Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh--
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh--
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there--
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve--
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.
IV. AURORA-BOREALIS. COMMEMORATIVE OF THE DISSOLUTION OF ARMIES AT THE PEACE.
What power disbands the Northern Lights
After their steely play?
The lonely watcher feels an awe
Of Nature's sway,
As when appearing,
He marked their flashed uprearing
In the cold gloom--
Retreatings and advancings,
(Like dallyings of doom),
Transitions and enhancings,
And bloody ray.
The phantom-host has faded quite,
Splendor and Terror gone--
Portent or promise—and gives way
To pale, meek Dawn;
The coming, going,
Alike in wonder showing--
Alike the God,
Decreeing and commanding
The million blades that glowed,
The muster and disbanding--
Midnight and Morn.
—Herman Melville (1819–1891), alt.