26. Three sonnets of Longfellow

See/Hear/Download: Score (PDF)     MIDI (43 KB)     MP3 (9.9 MB)     Sibelius5

Musicians: SATB chorus (sometimes divisi), and organ.

Length: 3:12 + 3:42 + 3:41 = 10:35

Program notes: In these 3 sonnets, Longfellow uses Romantic imagery and sound effects to dramatize 3 important moments in his life as an artist: Mezzo cammin describes the mid-life crisis that impelled him to begin writing seriously. The sound of the sea is a metaphor for a happy time when artistic inspiration arrived as a gift unforseen and flowed freely. The poets is a retrospective summation of a life given to poetry (or "Song" as he calls it) with its mostly internal rewards. Because he invokes the great poets who went before, I have imagined this scene in a grand interior like the Panthéon of Paris, and written a series of single or double accompanied echo canons with increasing delay, suggesting an expanding space.


1. Mezzo cammin

Half my life is gone, and I have let
the years slip from me and have not fulfilled
the aspiration of my youth: to build
some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
of restless passions that would not be stilled,
but sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
kept me from what I may accomplish yet.
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
lying beneath me with its sounds and sights …
—A city in the twilight dim and vast,
with smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights—
and hear above me on the autumnal blast
the cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

2. The sound of the sea

The sea awoke at midnight from its sleep,
and round the pebbly beaches far and wide
I heard the first wave of the rising tide
rush onward with uninterrupted sweep:
A voice out of the silence of the deep,
a sound mysteriously multiplied
as of a cataract from the mountain's side,
or roar of winds upon a wooded steep.
So comes to us, at times, from the unknown
and inaccessible solitudes of being,
the rushing of the sea-tides of the soul.
And inspirations that we deem our own
are some divine foreshadowing and foreseeing
of things beyond our reason or control.

3. The poets

O ye dead Poets who are living still,
immortal in your verse, though life be fled;
and ye, O living Poets, who are dead
though ye are living, if neglect can kill:
Tell me if in the darkest hours of ill,
with drops of anguish falling fast and red
from the sharp crown of thorns upon your head,
ye were not glad your errand to fulfil?
Yes; for the gift and ministry of Song
have something in them so divinely sweet,
it can assuage the bitterness of wrong.
Not in the clamor of the crowded street,
not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng,
but in ourselves are triumph and defeat.

[Longfellow, by Read]

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

painted by Thomas Buchanan Read (1822-1872)

National Portrait Gallery

Wikimedia Commons

[Fritjar, Norway by night]

"...half-way up the hill, I see the Past..."

Fritjar, Norway by night

Mikael Leppä 2012

Wikimedia Commons

[Gullfoss, Iceland]

"...the cataract of Death far thundering from the heights."

Gullfoss, Iceland

Peter Bird 2003

[Dubrovnik bei Mondlicht]

"The sea awoke at midnight from its sleep..."

Dubrovnik bei Mondlicht, 1915

Eduard Kasparides (1858–1926)

Wikimedia Commons

[interior, Panthéon, Paris]

"O ye dead poets, who are living still..."

interior, Panthéon, Paris

Jean-Pierre Lavoie 2005

Wikimedia Commons

Fresh Choral Music Online, by Peter Bird of Los Angeles