In the Country of Baseball
Baseball songs for high voice, piano
Text: Donald Hall, from Fathers Playing Catch With Sons (North Point Press)
Commissioned by Carol Eikum.
Premiere—1998, by Carol Eikum and the composer, Saint Paul, MN.
When Carol Eikum asked for a song cycle about baseball that would unite her dual roles of soprano and baseball mom, I spent nearly a year reading through poems, essays and stories about the game, looking for something lyrical that would lend itself to music. Most writing about baseball is played staccato, like the game itself, in short bursts and gasps which lead to a brief crisis or moment of triumph.
For my baseball songs, I was looking for something more sustained, more like the feeling I have for the game: the feeling of standing out in the grass on a fading, high summer evening, waiting for the ball. I found in Donald Hall’s prose writing about baseball some of that nostalgia and humor (after all, fielding is total humiliation); moreover, it places the game in a larger context which is worth singing about.
I played a lot of baseball as a kid. The best part of it was practice—pitching, playing catch, fielding grounders. I was good-field/no-hit, but enough of a player to make the Little League All-Star team as a twelve-year-old shortstop for the Opticians, then make two errors in the All-Star Game. Along the way, I amassed a collection of six thousand baseball cards. The game occupied most of my time for several years, at least until the siren song of the trumpet lured me away.
The opening music of In the Country of Baseball describes a musical diamond-in static fourths and fifths-which leads immediately to the crack of the bat and an anonymous poem from 1744, perhaps the first mention in print of anything resembling baseball:
The ball once struck off
Away flies the boy
To the destin’d post
And then home with joy.
Dissolving to the “country” of baseball, loping rhythms suggest slow motion and high fly balls. The third movement is textless, but the musical gestures may describe three fly balls (foul?) and a whiff. ‘Fielding’ develops a seven-note hopping figure into a grand and very American-sounding chorale of martyrdom. The diamond icon returns to open and close the last movement, which proceeds from the human relationships fostered by baseball to the game’s symbolic meaning in the grand scheme of things.
While no stage directions are indicated in the score, the gestures of baseball are entirely appropriate, particularly in the Pitching and Fielding movements, provided they enhance the performance.