Wheeling Past the Stars
Song Cycle of settings of poems by Rabindranath Tagore (trans. William Radice)
ORCHESTRATION: Soprano and Violoncello
LANGUAGE: English (translated from the original in Bengali)
COMMISSIONED BY: S'dwestrundfunk, Stuttgart
DEDICATION: Patricia Rozario and Rohan de Saram
AVAILABILITY: Scores and information available directly from Param Vir
Patricia Rozario and Rohan de Saram
“The music had a quiet sumptuousness, the vocal lines beautifully drawn out, the accompaniment sweetly harmonious, de Saram’s double-stopping as mellifluous as the singing.” – Paul Driver, The Sunday Times 20 July 2008
This cycle of four settings of Tagore poetry was composed at the request of cellist Rohan de Saram in 1997. The four poems are selected for their variety of feeling and rhythmic pace. Together they form a small portrait of Tagore.
When I was asked by cellist Rohan de Saram to compose a song cycle for Soprano and Cello, he was very specific that he wanted it to be based on the work of an Indian poet. Tagore has had a great influence on me since my childhood, and so it was natural to turn to him for inspiration.
I chose these four Tagore poems to try to create a balanced cycle. There is one love poem, one about nature, one somewhat political and one for children. All of the poems have an immensely attractive rhythmic gait, and are varied in tone and pace.
In Unending Love, I was drawn particularly to the lengthy lines of each verse. But long lines are difficult to ‘set’. They demand rather special care as the extended stretches of melody must also carry forward the meaning, respect the punctuation and give expression to the inner compulsion of the text, whilst still maintaining clarity and drive in the purely musical and harmonic rhetoric, so that the line does not slump or drag. All this must happen in the course of each 5-line verse, which in the case of verses 2 and 4 contains a full-stop only at the very end of the verse. So the melody must accommodate a long stretch of meaning, semantically and musically. l found that challenging (in a positive way) and interesting to deal with, as I composed the melody.
These settings for solo cello and voice allowed me to write pure two-part counterpoint, as the voice and the cello lines entwine around each other in a tender and sometimes dramatic union. Simplicity was at the heart of these songs, and their modality hovers around Modes of Limited Transposition, (terminology from Messiaen) – especially an octatonic scale that is completely symmetrical and unlike a major or minor scale, being a succession of consecutive major and minor seconds. The intervals of the seconds thus feature throughout, and are especially friendly and gentle intervals, easy to sing and to draw out long lines in, without losing comprehensibility.
Tagore has the extraordinary ability to take the simplest of things and link it to something profound. His nature poem here, Palm-tree becomes almost metaphysical in reach as the words conjure up a mother-child theme. The cello must conjure up a wind and then a storm that the soprano must ride, as she rises with the tree towards the stars. The third song Grandfather’s Holiday is quite disjunct in intervallic use, to reflect the playful spirit of the poem. Some of the rhythms form a kind of nursery patter which I have retained in the setting. The last song New Birth is serious in tone, and its politics and humanity were very close to Tagore’s spirit and social conscience. It seemed the most appropriate song to end the cycle with, and the intense counterpoint between voice and cello underlines its intensity of mood and message.
I. Unending Love
I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times,
In life after life, in age after age forever.
My spell-bound heart has made and re-made the necklace of songs
That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms
In life after life, in age after age forever.
Whenever I hear old chronicles of love, its age-old pain,
Its ancient tale of being apart or together,
As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge
Clad in the light of a pole-star piercing the darkness of time;
You become an image of what is remembered forever.
You and I have floated here on the stream that brings from the fount
At the heart of time love of one for another.
We have played alongside millions of lovers, shared in the same
Shy sweetness of meeting, the same distressful tears of farewell —
Old love, but in shapes that renew and renew forever.
Today it is heaped at your feet, it has found its end in you,
The love of all man’s days both past and forever:
Universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life,
The memories of all loves merging with this one love of ours —
And the songs of every poet past and forever.
Palm tree: single-legged giant,
topping the other trees,
peering at the firmament –
It longs to pierce the black cloud-ceiling
and fly away, away,
if only it had wings.
The tree seems to express its wish
in the tossing of its head:
its fronds heave and swish –
It thinks, Maybe my leaves are feathers,
and nothing stops me now
from rising on their flutter.
All day the fronds on the windblown tree
soar and flap and shudder
as though it thinks it can fly,
As though it wanders in the skies,
travelling who knows where,
wheeling past the stars –
And then as soon as the wind dies down,
the fronds subside, subside:
the mind of the tree returns
To earth, recalls that earth is its mother:
and then it likes once more
its earthly corner.
III. Grandfather’s Holiday
Blue sky, paddy fields, grandchild’s play,
Deep ponds, diving-stage, child’s holiday;
Tree shade, barn corners, catch-me-if-you-dare,
Undergrowth, pârul-bushes, life without care.
Green paddy all a-quiver, hopeful as a child,
Child prancing, river dancing, waves running wild.
Bespectacled grandfather old man am I,
Trapped in my work like a spiderwebbed fly,
Your games are my games, my proxy holiday,
Your laugh the sweetest music I shall ever play.
Your joy is mine, my mischief in your eyes,
Your delight the country where my freedom lies.
Autumn sailing in, now, steered by your play,
Bringing white siuli-flowers to grace your holiday.
Pleasure of the chilly air tingling me at night,
Blown from Himâlaya on the breeze of your delight.
Dawn in Âsvin, flower-forcing roseate sun,
Dressed in the colours of a grandchild’s fun.
Flood my study with your leaps and your capers,
Work gone, books flying, avalanche of papers.
Arms round my neck, in my lap bounce thump –
Hurricane of freedom in my heart as you jump.
Who has taught you, how he does it, I shall never know –
You’re the one who teaches me to let myself go.
IV. New Birth
New deliverer –
The new age eagerly looks
To the path of your coming.
What message have you brought
To the world? In the mortal arena
What seat has been prepared for you?
What new form of address
Have you brought to be used
In the quest for the sacred in humankind?
What song of heaven
Have you heard before coming?
What great weapon for the fighting of evil
Have you placed in the quiver, bound to the waist
Of the young warrior?
Will you, perhaps, where a tide of blood besmirches your path,
Where there is malice and discord,
Construct a dam of peace,
A place of meeting and pilgrimage?
Who can say if etched on your forehead
Is the secret mark
Of the triumph of some great striving?
Today we search for your unwritten name:
You seem to be just off the stage,
Like an imminent star of morning.
Infants bring again and again
A message of reassurance –
They seem to promise deliverance, light, dawn.
[From RABINDRANATH TAGORE: SELECTED POEMS, translated by William Radice (Penguin, 1985) Copyright © William Radice, 1985. Used by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.]
The Sunday Times (July 20, 2008)
Reviewer: Paul Driver