for SATB, a cappella
This piece is available through Graphite Publishing. You can purchase the full work or individual movements. A guide to deciphering all the mythological references that Keats makes is also provided.
In 2007 I was asked by Matthew Culloton to write something for a project that The Singers – Minnesota Choral Artists were doing on the theme of “spring.” I searched high and low until I eventually found a poem by John Keats that I felt was appropriate. The only problem was that it was a bit short for what Matt wanted. However, it mentioned the word “green” at one point during the text so I asked if I might expand on the single piece I’d been tasked to write and, instead, give him two pieces using Keats texts that mentioned color. The result was the first “volume” of what I called Color Madrigals. After reading Keats’s collected works searching for texts that mentioned color (“orange” was near impossible to find), I went on the compose two more of these volumes for the Summer Singers (Vicki Peters, conductor) and The Singers, respectively, until I had the full set of primary and secondary colors.
Serpents in Red Roses Hissing
This text starts off very simply as an exercise in dichotomy: every line contains two things which are diametrically opposed to one another. Keats takes this principle and seemingly works himself into a rhythmic frenzy until his poem sounds more like a witch’s incantation than a piece of poetry. But then, at line 23 (“O the sweetness of the pain!”), it suddenly turns into a beautiful elegy as he calls upon the Muses. After all this Keats ends up very simply in passion and sorrow over the grave of his beloved—a beautiful (and very human) ending to a poem that spends most of its energy invoking the gods.
Blue! ‘Tis the Life of Heaven
Of all the Color Madrigals, this text is the only one written about the actual color it takes its title from. Keats captures blue in all its forms by bringing the poem from the heavens to the ocean and finally back to the earth. Because of this, the poetry becomes more and more intimate as it progresses. I chose to write a gradually expanding hymn to create a sense of reverence for my own favorite color.
When I read this text for the first time, I always got stuck on the last two lines. I kept associating it with the image of someone whose heart is broken taking refuge in a bottle of wine. The eight lines of the poem that lead up to this are what this person wishes for but, in the end, probably doesn’t get. Anyone who has ever felt heartbroken knows this feeling and, although we usually heal ourselves of our own accord, “drowning your sorrows” can seem awfully inviting sometimes.
Yellow Brooms and Cold Mushrooms
The life of a satyr must be an easy thing. Essentially they just follow the wine-god around and spend most of their lives wrapped in joy and ecstasy in a drunken state of glee. I used some extended vocal techniques (glissandi, vocal “hiccups” and a violent, “drunken” key change) to portray the unpredictable nature of a jovial forest creature that’s had way too much to drink.
A Grass-Green Pillow
If there were a “standard” subject for poetry centered on the season of spring it would probably be the subject of love and, more specifically, new love. Luckily, the genius of Keats takes on this traditional theme with the amazing, poetic language and seamless rhyme he is known for. I gravitated towards this particular text because of the symmetry between the first and second halves of the poem. In the first two stanzas it sounds like the stereotypical, overzealous young man trying to woo a maiden who might be above him in social standing and may or may not return his sentiments. However, once you reach the midway point (and especially in the last stanza), it suddenly becomes much more tender and romantic—as if he suddenly figures out the difference between lust and love.
I’d like to think he chooses the latter.
Orange-Mounts of More Soft Ascent
It seems that Keats was not a fan of the color orange. I can’t say that I am either but, after undertaking the task of reading Keats’ collected works to find poems that mentioned colors, I wish he would have enjoyed it a little more because it seems that in his short life he only used the word “orange” once in his poetry. Granted that it’s one of those words that’s sort of famous for not rhyming with anything, but it still seemed ironic that in 458 pages the color only came up once.
That being said, I was lucky he decided to use it in a great poem. In the eight lines I excerpted Keats sprays invective on the prideful like a literary skunk (and even mentions another color in the process). He builds toward a final, desperate accusation to the heavens spitting out consonants like a great snake along the way.
A Song of Opposites
Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow,
Lethe’s weed and Hermes’ feather;
Come today, and come tomorrow,
I do love you both together!
I love to mark sad faces in fair weather,
And hear a merry laugh amid the thunder.
Fair and foul I love together:
Meadows sweet where flames burn under,
And a giggle at a wonder;
Visage sage at pantomime;
Funeral, and steeple chime;
Infant playing with a skull;
Morning fair, and stormwrecked hull;
Nightshade with the woodbine kissing;
Serpents in red roses hissing;
With the aspics at her breast
Dancing music, music sad,
Both together, sane and mad;
Muses bright and Muses pale;
Sombre Saturn, Momus hale.
Laugh and sigh, and laugh again—
O the sweetness of the pain!
Muses bright, and Muses pale,
Bare your faces of the veil!
Let me see! and let me write
Of the day and of the night—
Both together. Let me slake
All my thirst for sweet heartache!
Let my bower be of yew,
Interwreathed with myrtles new;
Pines and lime-trees full in bloom,
And my couch a low grass tomb
Answer to a Sonnet Ending Thus:
“Dark eyes are dearer far than orbs that mock the hyacinthine bell”—J.H. Reynolds
Blue! ‘Tis the life of heaven, the domain
Of Cynthia, the wide palace of the sun,
The tent of Hesperus, and all his train,
The bosomer of clouds, gold, grey and dun,
Blue! ‘Tis the life of waters—Ocean
And all its vassal streams, pools numberless,
May rage, and foam, and fret, but never can
Subside, if not to dark blue nativeness.
Blue! Gentle cousin to the forest-green,
Married to green in all the sweetest flowers—
Forget-me-not, the blue-bell, and, that queen
Of secrecy, the violet. What strange powers
Hast thou, as a mere shadow! But how great,
When in an eye thou art, alive with fate!
Excerpt from Ode to a Nightingale
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cooled a long age in the deep-delvéd earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dancing, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stainéd mouth,
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim—
Excerpt from Endymion
‘Whence came ye, jolly Satyrs! Whence came ye,
So many, and so many, and such glee?
Why have ye left your forest haunts, why left
Your nuts in oak-tree cleft?’—
‘For wine, for wine we left our kernel tree;
For wine we left our heath, and yellow brooms,
And cold mushrooms;
For wine we follow Bacchus through the earth;
Great god of breathless cups and chirping mirth!
Come hither, lady fair, and joined be
To our mad minstrelsy!’
A Grass-Green Pillow
‘Where be ye going, you Devon maid’?
Where be ye going, you Devon maid?
And what have ye there i’ the basket?
Ye tight little fairy, just fresh from the dairy,
Will ye give me some cream if I ask it?
I love your meads, and I love your flowers,
And I love your junkets mainly,
But ’hind the door I love kissing more,
O look not so disdainly.
I love your hills, and I love your dales,
And I love your flocks a-bleating—
But O, on the heather to lie together,
With both our hearts a-beating!
I’ll put your basket all safe in a nook,
And your shawl I hang up on this willow,
And we will sigh in the daisy’s eye
And kiss on a grass-green pillow.
Excerpt from Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil
Why were they proud? Because their marble founts
Gushed with more pride than do a wretch’s tears?—
Why were they proud? Because fair orange-mounts
Were of more soft ascent than lazar stairs?—
Why were they proud? Because red-lined accounts
Were richer than the songs of Grecian years?—
Why were they proud? again we ask aloud,
Why in the name of Glory were they proud?
John Keats (England, 1795-1821)