Monday, June 23, 2008

Resonance and remembrance

As a fan and performer of contemporary choral music, I often speculate about the potential of poems for musical setting. Today, I was struck by this poem, which was recently recorded by the BBC in remembrance of journalists and reporters killed while serving as war correspondents. The poem, aptly titled "Memorial" and written by James Fenton, accompanies a statue commissioned by the BBC in honor of those brave reporters. I have the deepest respect for those who enter war zones to write and to report - not only as a journalist myself, but as a member of the human race.

Fenton's poem is almost deceptively traditional; I had to read it twice before realizing it was in a simple "ABAB" scheme. The following enjambed sentence speaks volumes as it runs its course across a stanza break:

...Some seemed honour-bound
to take the lonely, peerless track
conceiving danger as a testing ground
to which they must go back

till the tongue fell silent and they crossed
beyond the realm of time and fear.

I discovered the poem via the New Yorker's recently-launched and frequently-updated Book Bench blog, which also excerpted much of that achingly wrought line. I think it must be the idea of the tongue falling silent that so begs to set to music, almost as a musical act of defiance against death.

At a baccalaureate service for a college graduation last month, I heard a setting of the poem "Do Not Stand By My Grave and Weep," believed to have been originally written by Mary E. Frye. The piece came from a version of the Requiem by composer Eleanor Daley, and the choir dedicated its performance to two members of the graduating class who passed away during their first year at the college. Though I'm told the poem is a popular funeral oration, the choral performance was the first time I'd encountered it. Fenton's poem, with its regular scheme and elegant build to a spare but powerful ending, reminded me of Frye's. I was stunned by both, but nearly brought to tears by the latter. Properly set, I believe the Fenton poem might have a similar effect, and not merely on myself.


Anonymous said...

Of topic...I studied trombone with Larry at SU. Great guy. How's he doing these days?


Colin Holter said...

Choral music is such a minefield - after writing a lot of very bad choral music in high school, I haven't really gone back. There's a huge demand for new choral pieces, though.

ps the Plan rules