The Book of Uncommon Prayer
for SATB and Piano
Poems and texts from:
The Book of Psalms
W. H. Auden
The Book of Common Prayer
Premiere performance 26 February, 2001 at the Miller Theater in NYC
The Book of Uncommon Prayer is a title borrowed from the handsome volume of poetry by poet/novelist Katherine Mosby. The poem are short, eloquent meditations, exhortations, and uncompromising glimpses of the self in which she formulates, in her own words, “A form of prayer broad enough to include people who can't name their god.” Ms. Mosby's poems provided me with portals to related poems, and with an adhesive to bind the cycle together. There is no through line in the piece: the juxtaposition of texts is purely associative. This cycle is thus a meditation on a meditation, touching on some of the things for which we pray: sacred, secular, and seemingly quite profane.
The Confitebor is two verses from Psalm 42, but appears here in Latin because it is part of the opening prayers of the Ordinary of the Mass. Its last line, “Why are thou sad, my soul, and why dost thou trouble me?” and that of Bleach my bones “Let one day the shadow lift that binds my soul to sadness” intersect at a fundamental unease in the human condition.
Teach me the beauty and I Stop Writing the Poem stand in stark contrast to each other, the one describing an inner wilderness, the other domestic routine, but there is a lesson learned in both. The emptiness of the self is echoed in the emptiness of the shirt, arms in a folded embrace, foreshadowing the death of the poet's husband from a long illness.
Help me to laugh and Old Photograph share laughing as a theme, but the laughter of MacLeish's young woman (his wife Ada, an operatic soprano) appears forced. She seems to be saying to the lens, “Ne me touchez pas”, the first words of Melisande to Golaud in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. The song is made from musical snippets of the opera. The couple alluded to in the poem, Gerald and Sara Murphy, were wealthy arts patrons (Gerald being an accomplished painter) who lived for a time as expatriates in a chalet in Cap d'Antibes that they dubbed “Villa America”. They regularly played host to Picasso, Hemingway, John Dos Passos and his wife, the Fitzgeralds and the MacLeishes, and many other creative luminaries of the early twentieth century.
Archibald MacLeish's The Two Priests and Music and Drum are two poems put together in one setting. The anti-clerical, anti-establishment tone is refreshing, coming from a lawyer who served as assistant director of the Office of War Information from 1942-1943. He also served as assistant secretary of state for cultural and public affairs, and wrote speeches for Franklin Roosevelt.
The decidedly secular exhortations of Let sing the bedsprings serve as prelude to Ferlinghetti's lusty, beat hallucination, San Jose Symphony Reception. This scene well could be a circle in a present day Inferno, its frustrated denizens forever on the make.
Two poems of journey follow: For I have come so long is accompanied by variations over a repeating 12-note bass figure, suggesting weary travel, never arriving. Calypso was commissioned and premiered by the New York Festival of Song some years ago as part of its American Love Songs, and has found a home in this cycle. The poet supplies accent marks in the text, sometimes on the wrong syllables, to insure an island lilt.
The next three poems share the grave as their subject, albeit in very different ways. Much of Kenneth Patchen's poetry speaks of the horrors of war, and Breathe on the Living was penned during or just after World War II. It is set as a chorale. Archibald MacLeish's Words to Be Spoken is inscribed, “For Baoth Wiborg, son of Gerald and Sara Murphy, who died in New England in his sixteenth year and a tree was planted there.” He died in 1935 of meningitis. Mark Strand's brilliantly nihilistic Some Last Words, which begins with a rude mangling of one of Jesus' parables, is a wry allusion to the Seven Last Words of Christ.
Hope, and the opening music returns in Angels have I none and The Phoenix Prayer, two poems by Katherine Mosby, the latter being the last poem in the volume.
As the piece began with a standard prayer, it ends with Keep Watch, the text taken from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. A short postlude recalls some earlier musical thoughts, but ruminates predominantly on the initial question, “Why are thou sad, my soul, and why dost thou trouble me?”