Song of Nature
SATB chorus, flute, oboe, cello, percussion, harp and organ.
Text by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Commissioned by Chorus Polaris
Premiere: Chorus Polaris, Bill Mathis, cond. Minneapolis, 2/17/23
American poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was born the same year as Hector Berlioz, and he occupies a similar searching, myth-busting position in letters as Berlioz does in music. Emerson’s ideas about nature are expressed in the 1836 essay of that name. “Nature, in the common sense,” he writes, “refers to essences unchanged by man: the air, the river, the leaf. Art is applied to the mixture of this wheel with the same things, as in a house, a canal, a statue, a picture.” Nature is a divine intelligence, according to Emerson, but the human and the divine are not separate: “I am part or parcel of God,” he declares. Neither are the scientific and the spiritual mutually exclusive. The exercise of reason in relation to nature, Emerson calls “spirit,” proclaiming: “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”
When Bill Mathis requested a work to pair with John Rutter’s Requiem on a program by Twin Cities-based Chorus Polaris, I sought a text vibrant with life. Movements 1, 2 and 4 are excerpted from “Song of Nature” (1836). Movement 3 comes from “Woodnotes II” (1840), where the words are given voice by the “Pine tree.” The notion of “undersong” is key here. Your roots—your past, your family’s past, your people’s past—are your undersong, and the ways of nature will guide you in finding and expressing it.
Robert Frost was a dedicated Emersonian, advising the American Academy: “One of the beautiful things about Emerson’s things, they’re so gnomic, there’s so many, quotable lines. How anybody can think he wasn’t a poet—that he’s just an essayist—they’re wrong there.”
My work calls for the same forces as Rutter’s: mixed chorus, flute, oboe, cello, percussion, harp and organ.
Mine are the night and morning,
The pits of air, the gulf of space,
The sportive sun, the gibbous moon,
The innumerable days.
I hid in the solar glory,
I am dumb in the pealing song,
I rest on the pitch of the torrent,
In slumber I am strong.
No numbers have counted my tallies,
No tribes my house can fill,
I sit by the shining Fount of Life,
And pour the deluge still;
And ever by delicate powers
Gathering along the centuries
From race on race the rarest flowers,
My wreath shall nothing miss.
II. A Thousand Summers
And many a thousand summers
My apples ripened well,
And light from meliorating stars
With firmer glory fell.
And thefts from satellites and rings
And broken stars I drew,
And out of spent and aged things
I formed the world anew;
III. O, Listen to the Undersong
O, listen to the undersong,
The ever old, the ever young; . . . .
These echoes are laden with tones
Which only the pure can hear;
Thou canst not catch what they recite
Of Fate and Will, of Want and Right,
Of man to come, of human life,
Of Death and Fortune, Growth and Strife.
IV. Time and Tide
Must time and tide forever run?
Will never my winds go sleep in the west?
Will never my wheels which whirl the sun
And satellites have rest?
No ray is dimmed, no atom worn,
My oldest force is good as new,
And the fresh rose on yonder thorn
Gives back the bending heavens in dew.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson (edited DET)
I, II, IV from “Song of Nature”; III from “Woodnotes II”