In 2006, I composed a piece for our performances at the convention for the North Central American Choral Directors Association. We were to perform a concert in the beautiful Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha. The program included one of my favorite works for choir, Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, as well as motets of Brahms, a triple choir work by Jacob Handl and some American music.
While planning for this program, I was having a hard time finding just the right piece to open this concert. It is always a very special opportunity to sing for a distinguished group of colleagues who all love choral music as deeply as we at Conspirare do.
In the end, I decided to compose something for the opening and I turned to the elegant, inspirational Bengali poet and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. All of the verse he writes is so beautifully shaped that it feels like it is already music simply when read aloud. I decided to follow the contour of his lines and wrote what I called “modern plainsong chant” so as to give his words the most space to express their own shapely essence.
Here is the text I set:
Ever in my life have I sought thee with my songs.
It was they who led me from door to door,
and with them have I felt about me,
searching and touching my world.
It was my songs that taught me all the lessons I ever learnt;
they showed me secret paths,
they brought before my sight many a star on the horizons of my heart.
They guided me all the day long to the mysteries of the country of pleasure and pain,
and at last to what palace gate have they brought me at the end of my journey?
You came down from your throne and stood at my cottage door.
I was singing all alone in a corner, and the melody caught your ear.
You came down and stood at my cottage door.
Masters are many in our hall, and songs are sung there at all hours.
But the simple carol of this novice struck at your love.
One plaintive little strain mingled with the great music of the world,
and with a flow’r for a prize;
You came down and stopped at my cottage door.
Here is an audio recording of a live performance of what I called “Gitanjali Chants.” The texts come from a collection of verse by Tagore that he called Gitanjali and means “Song Offering.” If you are not familiar with this collection, I recommend it to you.
“Gitanjali Chants” performed by Conspirare
In one of the early collections of Tagore’s works, William Butler Yeats writes a long introduction to the works. He was deeply moved by the words of Tagore. I love how directly and passionately he writes about his encounter with Tagore. Below, I share an excerpt from Yeats’ introduction.
I have carried the manuscript of these translations with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me. These lyrics—which are in the original full of subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention—display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long … Rabindranath Tagore, like Chaucer’s forerunners, writes music for his words, and one understands at every moment that he is so abundant, so spontaneous, so daring in his passion, so full of surprise, because he is doing something which has never seemed strange, unnatural, or in need of defence … as the generations pass, travellers will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon the rivers. Lovers, while they await one another, shall find, in murmuring them, this love of God a magic gulf wherein their own more bitter passion may bathe and renew its youth. At every moment the heart of this poet flows outward to these without derogation or condescension, for it has known that they will understand; and it has filled itself with the circumstance of their lives.
Flowers and rivers, the blowing of conch shells, the heavy rain of the Indian July, or the moods of that heart in union or in separation; and a man sitting in a boat upon a river playing lute, like one of those figures full of mysterious meaning in a Chinese picture, is God Himself. A whole people, a whole civilization, immeasurably strange to us, seems to have been taken up into this imagination; and yet we are not moved because of its strangeness, but because we have met our own image, as though we had walked in Rossetti’s willow wood, or heard, perhaps for the first time in literature, our voice as in a dream.
—William Butler Yeats
Thanks for being a part of this Inspire circle … So glad to have this place to share some of these things with you …
May the music keep knocking at your “cottage door.”
We Sing Life—
Song 49 and Song 101 (trans. from the original Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore) and from the Introduction by William Butler Yeats from Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore, London, ed. 1913.
“Gitanjali Chants” performed by Conspirare from NC-ACDA Convention 2006: Gala Closing Event CD, live recording of the Gala Closing Event featuring Conspirare, 2006 North Central American Choral Directors Association Convention.