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Wonderful songs, but born to die!

For our first project at Brevard, all thirteen of us composers have to write songs on the same text. This year’s text comes from Vachel Lindsay, otherwise famous for writing the lyrics for Charles Ives’s song “General William Booth Enters Heaven.” The poem we’re setting is entitled “In Praise of Songs That Die”:

Ah, they are passing, passing by,
Wonderful songs, but born to die!
Cries from the infinite human seas,
Waves thrice-winged with harmonies.
Here I stand on a pier in the foam
Seeing the songs to the beach go home,
Dying in sand while the tide flows back,
As it flowed of old in its fated track.
Oh, hurrying tide that will not hear
Your own foam children dying near
Is there no refuge-house of song,
No home, no haven where songs belong?
Oh, precious hymns that come and go!
You perish, and I love you so!

At first, it struck me as a second-rate poem: good ideas but poorly executed. I still don’t think it’s great, but after memorizing it this morning, I appreciate it more. Wikipedia says that Lindsay is “the father of modern singing poetry, as he referred to it, in which verses are meant to be sung or chanted.” The melodic sense to the words becomes much more apparent in speaking them rather than reading them. You begin to notice internal rhymes, such as “here” and “pier” in line 5.

Overall, the poem reminded me of the “what is music?” discussion we had in Dr. Hicks’s aesthetics class. If you view music as the experience of listening to sound in the air, as soon as that sound is over, the music is dead, and along the way, every step toward its completion is a step toward its demise. The music may have a physical manifestation as a score or recording, but these media are to the experience of music as is the bottle for the genie.

More could be said on this subject of sic transit gloria mundi, but I’ll leave that honor to the much better poet Robert Frost:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

One comment

  1. Elisabeth Kaseda says:

    “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is my favorite Frost poem. It’s often interpreted as being rather sad (as with your ‘sic transit gloria mundi’ reference), but I find it rather hopeful. That’s a whole other topic, though.

    I hadn’t heard of this Lindsay poem before, but I’m finding that I really like the musical references when done with such flowing rhythms. It makes me wish I could see what everyone was doing with the music there.

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