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)
I was moved the first time I read this remarkable poem. I actually tried to avoid setting it because many other composers have in very successful ways. After a while though, I found it too difficult to resist and admitted that I actually might have something worthwhile to add to it.
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.
This piece commissioned by and dedicated, with great love, to the Brigham Young University Singers and Dr. Ronald Staheli, the man who taught me the reasons for singing.