Since my last post, I have safely moved into my new apartment in Los Angeles. In reality, I’m actually really excited to begin this new chapter. Surprisingly, I’ve made this transition relatively smoothly, which is a big deal for me. I still miss all my great friends still living in Provo as well as my mentors and other great professors at BYU. For some reason I just feel this invigorating sense of possibility right now. Anyway, more on that later, on to what I’m supposed to talk about.
This last summer I was commissioned by Dr. Staheli to write a new piece for BYU Singers. I decided to compose a new setting of “Everyone Sang” by Siegfried Sassoon. At first I was very hesitant to take on this challenge. BYU Singers just sang the incredible, mind-blowing (extremely difficult) version by Dominick Argento two years ago. I had that version in my head for so long and there have been other great settings by other composers, I just couldn’t see how I could make a significant contribution and have my own voice for the text. After a while though, I found it too difficult to resist and admitted that I actually might have something worthwhile to add to it.
Composing this was a rather strange process for me because I essentially composed the entire piece backwards from end to beginning. I didn’t mean to and I’d never done it before, but it turned out okay! I compose basically from what I hear in my “mind’s ear” and the first thing that came was “O but everyone was a bird,” then the previous line, etc. It just goes to show: trust inspiration, it just knows.
I absolutely love the poem and was struck by it the very first time I read it:
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on–on–and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
– Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)
Surprisingly, when Sassoon wrote this poem he was not elated or euphoric but rather depressed and defeated:
“It was a sultry spring night. I was feeling dull-minded and depressed, for no assignable reason. After sitting lethargically. . . for about three hours after dinner, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing for it but to take my useless brain to bed. On my way from the arm-chair to the door I stood by the writing-table. A few words floated into my head as though from nowhere. . . so I picked up a pencil and wrote the words on a sheet of note-paper. Without sitting down, I added a second line. It was if I were remembering rather than thinking. In this mindless manner I wrote down my poem in a few minutes. When it was finished I read it through, with no sense of elation, merely wondering how I had come to be writing a poem when feeling so stupid.” (Sassoon, Siegfried’s Journey)
Despite the cynical origins of the poem I still firmly believe in the optimistic sentiment and self-evident truth of the poem. I believe it stands as a testimony, that even in times of great despair and desolation, something jubilant and joyful is waiting beneath the surface screaming for release.
I’ve delivered it to Dr. Staheli and we’ve been able to trim and polish it a bit more over the last month. I’m very excited because it’s going to be performed at three possible sets of concerts this fall. One of these concerts will be when BYU Singers opens the Utah All-State Choir Concert in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on October 13th. That’s the concert that I will be attending in person (God bless frequent flyer miles). I’m thrilled! I’ll post more as dates become confirmed.
Anyway, enough of that, here’s what most of you want now: The first page.