Text of “Voyages II” by Hart Crane. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.
“Before the Wresting Tides,” is scored for the same ensemble as Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy: chorus, orchestra, and solo piano…This dark, urgent work (in contrast to the ebullient Beethoven), with the chorus singing the words of Hart Crane…is brash but also ruminative, reflecting Crane’s voluptuous and lyrical poetry, employing striking metaphors from the natural world…Gill’s gift for setting words in an insightful and pungent manner here weds to another of his frequent qualities: an awe of the dramatic power of nature.
– Broad Street Review, 20 August 2018
Before the Wresting Tides incorporates and illuminates both musical and poetic idioms, and brings a new dimension to Crane’s dense, haunting words.
– HRAudio.net, March 2018
Opening with the fearsome tread of time, [Before the Wresting Tides] goes on to observe the turbulent sea and reflect on our awestruck reactions, with expressive result.
– The American Record Guide, January/February 2018
Best news first: Gill’s [Before the Wresting] Tides uses a large canvas and gives chorus, orchestra, and virtuoso pianist much to do as the music leaps out in many directions, its burgeoning sense of invention prompted by Hart Crane’s restlessly morphing imagery in the poem “Voyages II”…exhilarating indeed…the ending is a stunner.
– Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 February 2013
There are many threes in Before the Wresting Tides. Firstly, there are the three poems by Hart Crane that I “set”: “Voyages II,” set explicitly; “Ave Maria,” Part I of The Bridge, from which my title is paraphrased; and “The Broken Tower,” the opening of which I set “secretly” at the beginning of the piece, before the first choral entrance. Secondly, there are the three main sonic images of the piece: the idea of waves (sonic and oceanic—the former as manifested in the sound and resonance of bells, heard throughout the piece); the Angelus bells (which have their own embedded threes: three strikes [then a pause] three times, thrice daily); and the Ave Maria chant. Thirdly, there are three main “voices” in the piece: the solo piano (which could represent Hart Crane, the flawed man), the chorus (which gives voice to his perfect poem), and the orchestra (which might most represent the sea).
The frame for the whole work is the Angelus bells, for several reasons. Sounding three times three thrice daily (morning, midday, and evening), they work as a structural support for the whole piece, and are heard (each time in the timpani) at the beginning, middle, and end of the work. In addition to providing an easily graspable structure for the piece, they also suggest a grander passage of time than the duration of the work (essentially, from dawn to dusk). The Angelus bells are also the meeting place of the three sonic images: they are, in fact, bells, so illustrate (sonic) waves, and are associated with the Ave Maria chant (which alternates with various verses and prayers in the Angelus ritual).
Most importantly, the Angelus celebrates the Annunciation, or the revelation to Mary that she would bear the savior of the world—the “Word,” in the language of the gospel of John. The Word, as it turns out (with a capital or lowercase “w”) was one of Crane’s favorite metaphors for poetry: the poet, through labor and intense reflection, birthed his perfect “word,” which was the poem. He uses this designation in all three of the poems I use in Before the Wresting Tides:
The imaged Word, it is, that holds
Hushed willows anchored in its glow.
It is the unbetrayable reply
Whose accent no farewell can know.
(last stanza of “Voyages VI”)
Be with me, Luis de San Angel, now—
Witness before the tides can wrest away
The word I bring,
(opening of “Ave Maria,” from The Bridge)
My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored
Of that tribunal monarch of the air
Whose thigh embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word
In wounds pledged once to hope,—cleft to despair?
(sixth stanza of “The Broken Tower”)
The music that precedes the first choral entrance is a “setting” of “The Broken Tower.” My inspiration for this idea of a “hidden” poem came from the Beethoven Choral Fantasy, which uses a pair of earlier songs of his as its melodic and expressive source. “Seufzer eines Ungeliebte” and “Gegenliebe” (WoO 118), basically “Sighs of the Unloved” and “Returned Love,” both show up in the Choral Fantasy, but the Seufzer have been transformed into a piano fantasy (in the same key as the song, C minor), while the tune and affect of “Gegenliebe” remains (the text of the Choral Fantasy being newly composed for this piece—after the music was written). I wanted to create similar levels of text “settings” in Before the Wresting Tides, and the opening of “Voyages II,” which begins with a reply, or qualification (and that marvelous opening dash!)
—And yet, this great wink of eternity,
provided me that exact opportunity.
“Voyages II” is actually “replying” to “Voyages I” (written several years before its answer), which ends with a warning to the children it addresses (playing on a beach):
O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog,
Fondle your shells and sticks, bleached
By time and the elements; but there is a line
You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it
Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses
Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast.
The bottom of the sea is cruel.
It was Crane’s great love, Emil Opffer, a sailor, who inspired him to continue the Voyages cycle (there are six poems in total) and who, both in those poems and in his life, inspired Crane to reject his own warning and enter the sea (of love, but also grave danger).
But I didn’t want to “set” “Voyages I” as my prelude to the first choral entrance—I wanted to “set” “The Broken Tower.” The opening of that poem is one of the strongest poetic openings I know:
The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn
Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell
Of a spent day—to wander the cathedral lawn
From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.
This is the opening of Crane’s last completed poem, finished a few months before he committed suicide by jumping overboard (of course, he died at sea) from a ship en route to his home in New York from Mexico. I wanted to use “The Broken Tower” because it begins with a wonderful evocation of the bells (Crane actually rang an ancient bell in Mexico, after making friends with the bell-ringer, the morning after a night of heavy drinking) and because it, together with “Voyages II,” a poem from Crane’s first published collection White Buildings, encapsulates his entire writing career.
The opening of Before the Wresting Tides, up to the first choral entrance, is in three parts. First (bars 1–8), we hear the first of the Angelus bells accompanying a forcefully yearning string melody (which will return toward the end of the work, under the equally forceful “O minstrel galleons of Carib fire”). Second (bars 8–45), we hear a series of repeated chords in the strings (and later fanfarish commentary from the winds and brass) over which the piano solo “chimes” the opening of the Ave Maria chant. The chant is, in fact, hidden in clusters of chords that should sound like tolling, resonating bells. Third (bars 46–63), the piano solo ventures out on her own, introducing wave-like gestures (in the left hand) that return, destructively, to the clangor of bells that get picked up in the orchestra and build to an early, crushing climax.
So the first choral entrance is an answer to, but also a rejection of, the clangorous darkness of the opening of Before the Wresting Tides. There is no fear or danger in the first stanza, simply wonder at the world of love that has suddenly opened up before us:
—And yet, this great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,
Samite sheeted and processioned where
Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,
Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love.
In point of fact, this is really just a description of the sea: “a wink of eternity” in that it is (with the exception of the sky, I suppose) the only thing on earth that we can ascertain as infinite. The waters have no edge, the winds come from nowhere (and everywhere). The moon’s reflection glistens on the surface of the sea, which bends (sensuously!) toward the moon (this is why the sopranos “bend” up in bars 84–85), and this joyful interplay is its own depiction of a (laughing) love, with its various inflections.
The music that follows (bars 89–100) features the winds in canon intoning phrases from the Ave Maria chant, over the undulating waves of the strings. The specific phrases intoned are:
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
Et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.
(Blessed art thou among women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.)
I use this to refer to the poet, to the lover, and to us all—experiencing the love that Crane depicts in the first stanza of “Voyages II” is, at this point, a pure blessing. And the fruit of his womb, will be his perfect poem, his Word.
The second stanza introduces the idea of the sea (= love) as unpredictable, changeable:
Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,
The sceptered terror of whose sessions rends
As her demeanors motion well or ill,
All but the pieties of lovers hands.
Here, we continue the description of the sea, now noting its silver-capped waves (which are beautifully confused with sonic waves that “knell”). But the tenor solo introduces the idea of a malevolent potential in the sea, whose “sceptered terror” can capriciously rend all. All but (the poem is still positive) the joined hands of the lovers. These lovers are still naïve, still young—I chose “young” voices, in soprano and tenor soloists, to show this. The second set of voices, in stanza four (alto and bass), have aged with the passing of time and the darkening of the poetic (and musical) language.
The piano interlude (from bars 115–120) recalls her music from before (bars 45–50), and sets the stage for the second choral section:
And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,—
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.
The re-entrance of the chorus recalls its first entrance (and yet, and yet, and yet…), but now the music is spirited and full of youthful vigor. “San Salvador,” a Caribbean island, was, at least traditionally believed to have been, the first land sighted and visited by Christopher Columbus on his voyage to the New World (and his veiled appearance here harkens back to “Ave Maria”—Crane’s poem, not the chant—as it is a depiction of Columbus’s journey to discover his Word). As an aside, I will note that Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World was immensely important for Crane—the United States were as inspirational for Crane as they were for Walt Whitman (whom Crane idolized), and The Bridge is an attempt to gather together all that they represent (including the prehistory of the States) in a manner similar to (and as impassioned as) Leaves of Grass.
My setting of the second and third lines of the above stanza is intentionally clumsy and raucous—Crane is reported to have shouted these lines repeatedly while soaking his blistered and freezing feet in hot water, drunk (as usual) and cold from snowshoeing about in upstate New York, where he was “escaping,” as he often was, his loved/hated adopted New York City. I think of this section of Before the Wresting Tides as funny, but it is also a decided turning point. From here until the end, the piece becomes increasingly dark and stormy. Doubtless Crane’s drinking was a source of amusement to his friends early on, but as his life unraveled and his drinking all but shut down his ability to write, things quickly became dire.
The second Angelus bells sound under “Complete the dark confession her veins spell,” and usher in the middle of the day. The piano’s music now is struggling, portentous. Little by little, the destructive sounds of the opening come back, and the clangorous setting of the Ave Maria chant returns in bar 189. This music builds in intensity as Crane struggles to overcome his personal demons, and when the vocal soloists re-enter in bar 217, they have aged (the voices are lower, heavier than soprano and tenor), and there is a distinct aura of carpe diem at work:
Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,
And hasten while her penniless rich palms
Pass superscription of bent foam and wave,—
Hasten, while they are true,—sleep, death, desire,
Close round one instant in one floating flower.
“Hasten,” the only “important” word that Crane repeats in the poem, creates a sense of urgency here—time is running out. And it, in fact, does run out, as the trio of “sleep, death, desire” crystallize in the beautifully haunting image of a “floating flower.” This image was reportedly inspired by the sinking of a ship early in Herman Melville’s (another writer—and seaman, as it turns out—Crane idolized) Moby Dick. As the ship disappears beneath the waters, only a “flower” of expanding waves emanating from the vortex remains. (“Vortex,” which appears in the last stanza of “Voyages II,” is also used in Melville’s description of the sinking of the Pequod at the end of his novel). The music of, primarily, bars 236–239 most clearly depict this. It is a cataclysmic event that sets the stage for Crane’s ecstatic vision of the final stanza:
Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe.
O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,
Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.
“Bind us in time.” Arrest the progression of time—make love, and life, last. Somehow death at sea is preferable to a return to land (Crane demands that the ships of fire do not dock until…). The final image of the seal gazing toward paradise is one that Crane echoes in his “Three Locutions des Pierrots”:
My crisp soul will be flooded by a languor
Bland as the wide gaze of a Newfoundland.
The specific “gazer” seems to be unimportant (a seal or a dog, it doesn’t matter) so long as it is impersonal, animal, eternal (one seal is as good as another, so they live forever). This final reference to the passing of time (here eternal time) is echoed in the piano’s intoning the final two lines of the Ave Maria chant (bars 264 –272, answering a canonic statement in the solo strings), not yet heard in the piece:
Ave Maria, Mater Dei,
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.
(Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.)
Beyond the obvious time-bound “now and at the hour of our death,” there is another element of time at play here. The opening of the Ave Maria chant is ancient, from around 900 or 1000 AD, and its text is from the gospel of Luke. This last part of the chant, a (non-scriptural) petition to the Virgin, was added 400–500 years later (the shape of the melody is quite different, increases the ambit of the melody, and adds one chromatic note). Just as the frame of the Angelus bells expands our perception of time beyond the roughly 15 minutes of Before the Wresting Tides to the 24 hours of a day, the Ave Maria chant’s history further expands our perception of time to centuries. After completing the chant, the piano dissolves into bell-derived resonances (heard in the strings, too) and evaporates into a hopeful (?) E major, over which a solo flute “remembers” the bass solo’s urgent admonition—his thrice repeated “hasten” of bars 220–222. But now, at the end of the work, we are outside of time, floating in Crane’s paradisiacal instant.