REFLECTIONS ON WALDEN POND

Text: Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)


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The excerpts are taken from the premiere of this work in 2000 by Cantate Carlisle in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, under the direction of Cheryl Parsons.


I have long been an admirer of Henry David Thoreau. The reason for this has certainly to do with my love and study of the natural world, as I trained as a biologist prior to turning full-time to music.


But it goes further than this. Thoreau recognized not only mankind's physical relationship with and dependence on the natural world, but also mankind’s psychological and spiritual relationship. He speaks of the 'tonic of wilderness'; he states, “in wilderness is the preservation of the world” and “we require that all things be mysterious and unfathomable”. Thoreau understood well the thirst of the mind and spirit for those things which nature and nature alone can supply. Little wonder that he states in his poem To Nature  “I would rather be Nature's child than a king.” 


Thoreau's writing style is as luxuriant and redundant as nature itself. Initially this posed some problems in my setting his texts as for a while I felt that the 'addition' of a musical component would create even more redundancy and make the whole just too overwhelming. However, I made two significant discoveries as I forged ahead.


The first discovery was that the précis that Cheryl Parsons and her colleagues had created from a mountain of material had a remarkable form to it. Perhaps this form came about consciously, but more likely it came about as the result of a painstaking process of continually paring down the original material to a few representative statements while retaining maximum variety. Indeed, this is a very 'natural' process! That it related closely to a 'natural' musical form is also not entirely coincidental, for the growth of musical form in time, like architectural form in space, is also related to the development of natural 'forms' which are born, develop, reproduce and die in time and space.


The form, then, finds itself with an introduction- Woods & Life in which Thoreau recalls "I went to the woods because..." followed by three movements: Hawk, Spring Grass, and Fishes & Time which of course represent all of nature in sky, earth and sea. Finally comes the coda (Latin for 'tail'!) To Nature, one of the few poems that Thoreau penned. Scattered within the work are other bits and pieces, verbal leitmotifs such as 'we can never have enough of nature' as well as musical leitmotifs - found near the end of each movement - which help unify the work.


The second discovery came as the result of trying to 'add' music to the Thoreau's already rich, evocative and redundant style. As I was about to give up, it suddenly occurred to me that a great deal of what Thoreau was saying was also amplification of a central issue and so I attempted to seek out this central issue, paring down his writing if not to its essentials then at least to something less, and allowing the music to substitute for and colour what he was attempting to say. It was a little like clearing out the underbrush - though it was very much live and not dead underbrush - allowing the central issue to be viewed, and thus described, more clearly. It suddenly all worked though I am certain that Thoreau would not have approved had this been a mere writing exercise - a purging of his rich writing style. However, it was done to allow for another form of expression, an expression to which he himself so often referred - sound.


And I hope, having heard it, he might approve. 


The setting is unabashedly Romantic but so is ‘nature’! It is lush, redundant, ever growing, ever dying, and ever inspiring; and, of course, Thoreau was born into the extreme sentiment of the Romantic period.


Imagine my surprise when, upon telling my daughter Lara - who lived for a decade in Boston – that I was writing about “Walden Pond”, she said, “Oh, I go there with the kids to swim every week”. A trip to Boston quickly followed!   


Following are the opening lines of each of the five movements. Only the middle movement is, at least initially, sparse, reflecting perhaps the fine ‘spring grass’– a brief respite from the lushness of the surrounding movements.  



I. WOODS & LIFE


I went to the woods, because I wished to live deliberately,

to front the essential facts of life,

to see if I could learn what it had to teach,

and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Living is so dear!...


II.  THE HAWK


When looking up I observed a very slight and graceful hawk,

like a night-hawk soaring like a ripple soaring

Ah...

Tumbling tumbling over and over, tumbling tumbling,

the underside of its wings gleamed like satin in the sun…


We can never have enough...of Nature.



III  SPRING GRASS


...spring flame, fire sun, returning sun...


The grass flames upon the hillside like a spring fire

as if the earth sent forth an inward heat

to greet the returning sun


...like a spring fire, green summer flame... 


So our human life but dies down to its root

and still puts forth its green blade to eternity!


 

IV. FISHES & TIME


...golden and silver and bright,

a rare mess of cupreous fishes...

Today I got a rare mess

of golden silver gleaming cupreous fishes

looking like a string of jewels.


...jumping from hummock to hummock...

I have penetrated to those meadows

on the morning of many a first spring day…


Time is but the shallow stream I go a-fishing in;

its thin current slowly slides away, 

but eternity remains…


V.  TO NATURE


O nature I do not aspire

To be the highest in thy quire,

To be a meteor in the sky

Or comet that may range on high,

Only a zephyr that may blow

Among the reeds by the river low...


For I had rather be thy child

And pupil of the forest wild

Than be the king of men elsewhere

And most sovereign slave of care-

To have one moment of thy dawn

Than share the city's year forlorn,

Some still work give me to do

Only be it near near to you.





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