Love Came Down

One of the particulars of childhood is that one can experience extraordinary things as usual. In the years of my childhood, protestant Christian church services always included the singing of several hymns by the congregation at large. I suspect this may be less common today. I believe larger churches now often feature talented musicians and singers performing more of the musical parts of the service, which makes the worship more like conventional entertainment. In many of the rural churches of my youth, even organizing a church choir for a single number might strain the resources of the smaller congregations. So instead, we held the hymns in our own breaths and wavering pitches.

The singing of such hymns, many from the 19th century, was part of my musical initiation. The melodies were various, some taken from traditional airs, others adapted from famous classical composers. The words? There was that ordinary/strange part. Hymn writers were often the philosophical sort, and their lyrics would drop esoteric theological terms and judgements as austere as their hopes were sure. It wasn’t just the children that would be asked to fill their lungs and sing these arcane terms, they were also not the common language of the farmers and tradesmen who filled the pews.

Often the minister leading the congregation would skip the more difficult verses, but I, enamored of words, would read them anyway and wonder at their celestial descriptions. This experience may have primed me for a later-life appreciation for Emily Dickinson, who sometimes used the common hymn meter for her own original and less than orthodox hymnal.

Well, that’s a long digression before bringing forth the author of the text I use today: Christina Rossetti. Rosetti often wrote short devotional poems, and while I don’t know if she intended them from the start as hymn lyrics, some were straightaway used for same. Her poem Love Came Down at Christmas  is one example. It’s sung to several melodies, one of which is a traditional Irish tune which I used as a basis for my setting.

Rossetti as a poet is not often drawn to extravagant verse (unlike many of her Victorian contemporaries), and the text of her poem is quite short: 12 lines, 63 words. While not in an exact form like a triolet, rondel or the like, it makes significant use of repetition: 11 of those words are uses of the word “love,” and its relative “lovely” could make that count 12. The poem has only one rhyme, which sometimes just repeats its word rather than true rhyme: divine, sign, mine.

So, a simple structure, the kind of thing that is ideal for singing. None the less, it’s been altered in most performances I’ve sampled. The line “Love to God and all men” has sometimes been changed to inclusive language (“all of us”). The other common alteration is to drop the second verse. That’s odd, it’s not like this is a 48-verse ballad or something. I suspect that dropped verse is excluded because it uses those dodgey theological words.

Here’s Rossetti’s original second verse:

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Many would be in the philosophic weeds there. The belief that sweet baby Jesus is an incarnation of the divine Godhead is orthodox Christianity, but it comes off kind of Hindu expressed so. And the last line is a bit awkward in sing-ability and sense.

Edward_Burne-Jones_Star_of_Bethlehem

The gifts are nice, but the Airbnb review Joseph’s writing will still be scathing.

 

Still, dropping it obscures the point Rossetti chose to make: that the incarnate Godhead is not something that we can invariably grasp. Use of three-kings astrology and wandering stars is not reliable after all. As the second verse makes way for the third, she chooses and old standby from folk-ballads for her compressed song: the love-token. In songs like “John Riley”  long-separated lovers know each other by some special device they have exchanged, and in this case, love itself is the token. We will know the Godhead, and not some counterfeit, is present by love’s presence.

I took the liberty of revising Rossetti’s second verse rather than dropping it. Here’s how I rendered it:

If we seek the Godhead
Love incarnate, love divine;
Where to find our Jesus,
What would be his sacred sign?

I also took liberties with the music. All the repetition with the words often resolving down to the same made me think of musics based on similar relationships to departing and returning rather than a harmonic progression that goes onward. That and the second verse called for me to pull out the tambura and sitar,* and to play guitar and organ in a manner that would match them. The piece would benefit if a better singer in that tradition sang it than myself—but then, there may be a benefit to singing the hymns even if one isn’t the best singer in the congregation.

Choices like this as I pursue this project to introduce different words and music to each other is my adult way to make the extraordinary usual. The player to hear my performance of Christina Rossetti’s poem is below.

 

 

 

 

*Though I once played a copy of the Coral “Electric Sitar,” I no longer use that approximation of the real sitar. Instead I use my MIDI guitar to play sitar and tambura “virtual instruments” where the guitar (or keyboard) can trigger the sound of each note in the instrument’s range as one plays, using a variety of realistic timbres from the real thing.

Smoke and Steel

Today is May Day, the international labor day, so I spent it working, looking through poetry books for something about our lives of work. There’s less there than there should be I think, the world of work somehow not seeming as poetic as human love and desire or as sublime as the observation of nature and things of the spirit without any human sweat in it.

This lack leads me to admire poets who address this imbalance. And the first one that came to my mind turned out to be the one I ended up using today: Carl Sandburg. That Sandburg might come to mind for others too as a poet of labor probably didn’t help his reputation at the start of our current century. He doesn’t come by that classification lightly, having had a career as an itinerate worker and labor organizer before he began as a poet, and even while he was publishing groundbreaking works of early American Modernist poetry like his Chicago Poems  in 1917, he had a second, less well-known life as a Socialist radical.

Carl Sandburg at work

Carl clocking in in his later years when his day job was goat farmer

 

Somehow Sandburg survived both the post WWI and post WWII red scares without great harm to his reputation, but by late in the 20th century there was less interest in Modernists who wanted to write about work and labor issues. The bohemian fringe more or less looked at straight work as an unfortunate event*, and the academic establishment was more interested in aesthetic rigor and the ability to carry lightly evidence of a full-fledged college education for its poets.

Proletarian writing had been done already. Time to move on.

As I keep reminding you and myself, our current century is now old enough to vote, it’s approaching adulthood. It might want to re-evaluate those judgements the old century made about its youthful innovators.

So, for today, May Day, I took the opening to Sandburg’s longer poem that gave its name to his 1920 collection Smoke and Steel and turned it into a labor hymn. “By this sign all smokes know each other.”

The player gadget to hear it is below. If you want to read the whole poem, or just read along to the opening section I used, the full text is here.

 

 

 

*as leading beat-generation scholar and theorist, Maynard G. Krebs put it in his famous essay “On Work, An Existential Examination” “Work!?”

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)

Here’s a hopeful song written by a worried man during the great trauma of the American Civil War.

Those who’ve followed along on this blog in 2018 will know that I’ve performed several pieces with words written by that man, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’ve written about his once great fame and his steep fall from poetic fashion, but I’ve written little about his eventful personal life.

longfellows house in winter

Not all of what it seems: a picture postcard scene of Longfellow’s home during the Civil War.

 

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, there could be no doubt on which side Longfellow would be on. To the extent that Longfellow was political as a writer, he was resolutely against the institution of slavery. Longfellow was also philosophically a pacifist, but even before the war he was aware of the cost Abolitionist convictions could bring. His closest friend, Charles Sumner, a U. S. Senator and another Abolitionist, was sitting at his desk on the Senate floor in 1856 when three southern congressmen launched a planned assault on him. The leader of the crew beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a walking stick, while the other two held off any who rose to try to stop the assault, one brandishing a pistol to keep help at bay. Sumner was so badly injured from the attack he was unable to resume his Senate duties for three years after the attack.

By the spring of 1863, the Civil War over the maintenance of slavery was now two years old. No one knew how long it would continue or what the outcome would be, and once more someone close to Longfellow would feel its blows. Longfellow’s 17-year-old son Charley, who had firmly resolved his own feelings about the war, snuck out of the family home and made his way to Washington to join the Union army. In November of that year, his unit was reconnoitering around a Virginia location called New Hope Church. They found what they were looking for. A southern bullet ripped through Charley Longfellow’s torso sideways, just nicking his spine. Luck that, and luck that he was able to endure and survive a painful evacuation on a wagon and the woeful state of battlefield trauma care in his time. Over half-a-million fellow soldiers didn’t.

So, a month before Christmas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was searching the maze of makeshift hospitals and camps in Washington until he found his wounded son. Son found, by Christmas the Longfellows could return home for further recuperation.

Today “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”*  if listened to casually may pass as just another carol, an obligatory musical evocation of some cheerful pealing on a winter’s holiday. But to the poet who wrote these words that Christmas, and to the nation torn apart, that he and his audience were part of, this was not merely another generalized Christmas card.

I wrote a couple of hundred words, meaning to put them here next, starting to say, preaching about, what Longfellow said in his poem—but Longfellow says what he needed to say pretty well and clear for an unfashionable poet. Maybe that “clear” thing is part of what is unfashionable, but despair shared and hope earnestly put forward is  a gift.

The player gadget below will let you hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)”  as I performed it. To sharpen Longfellow’s point, I trimmed back the number of stanzas in his original poem and then again from the shorter number of verses usually sung in the hymn that was made from it. I also reharmonized the chord changes a little. Guitarists wanting to play this themselves can use this shared link to see the details of the open tuning and chord voicings I used for this. The modified tuning, with the two lowest strings on the guitar tuned down even lower, makes this very easy to play.

 

 

 

*When Longfellow’s poem was published the next year it was titled “Christmas Bells,”  but it’s now best known through the hymn/Christmas carol set to music by John Baptiste Calkin.

In the Bleak Midwinter

Tomorrow is Christmas, a holiday that in the English-speaking world owes a lot to the English Victorians in conception, which gives me an excuse to present once again the words of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, this time in the guise of her popular and explicitly Christian-religious Christmas song “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Burne-Jones' Nativity

“You could have brought a casserole.” Victorian painter Edward Burne-Jones’ nativity.
Is it just me, or is Mary looking a little non-plussed by all the visitors?

 

The song used for Rossetti’s words seems to be attributed to Gustav Holst, a composer who is best known to me for his orchestral suite “The Planets,”  which has been admired or borrowed from by both Frank Zappa and King Crimson. In my rush to complete this today I can’t say that I’ve done as much justice to his tune, though I used a rough approximation of it.

The tune is quite pretty, and it makes it a fine solo for any good singer, which therefore makes it a challenge for me, so I’ve resorted to my usual parlando. On the other hand, a great many versions of this song in hymn books and elsewhere seem to have modified Christina Rossetti’s words, changing terms and phrases, even dropping some stanzas, where I’ve been faithful to them. I don’t have my usual time today to research why this would be. The meter of her original text is slightly irregular, and so it may have been modified for better singability or for audience reasons.

Botticelli's Mystic Nativity

Botticelli’s “Mystic Nativity.” Painted before the career of Raphael
So literally, a first-order “Pre-Raphaelite”

 

Rossetti’s approach makes use of her characteristic modesty in approaching religious subjects, with some lovely lines in the first verse picturing our northern Midwinter, and then going on to describe the stable setting, and the supernatural surrounding sentimental maternity and spiritual imminence.

Musically, I tried to compensate for my speaking the words by unleashing my bass playing. Like some gifts you may get this Christmas, it may not be the right size or color—but it was given in a good spirit at least.

To un-wrap it, use the player below.

 

Winter is Good

Here in the upper Midwest we are now in the middle of winter, and so are in a various ambivalence about it. Part of us doesn’t like the burden of winter, part of us wants to taunt it, and show that we can still have the upper hand over it, and some of us, those who don’t want to stop reading the book of nature, can find a cold, white chapter to puzzle over and admire.

I’ve already spoken here about how Minneapolis was settled as something of a colonial outpost of New England. The author of the words for this episode, Emily Dickinson was a lifelong New Englander, steeped in Transcendentalist thought, so we know she’s read that Winter chapter.

Just before dawn this morning, I jumped on my winter bicycle and took a ride to my favorite breakfast café.  It was seasonable, 20 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing, the streetlight globes surrounded with particulate halos of pelting snow. My tires were crunching the snow, the big knobs of their tread like typewriter keys imprinting the blank pavement’s page. It really was quite beautiful, if obscure of meaning. Summer rain saturates us, inebriates us. Snow surrounds us, but we are never more than a transient part of it, unable to understand its dance.

Roughneck in snow closeup

Winter is good – his Hoar Delights!  Also, there is tea and a frittata involved.

 

Emily Dickinson’s words are featured here a lot because she’s a great lyric poet and her words fit with music almost without effort. I learned decades ago that Dickinson favored “hymn meter,” that 8,6,8,6 syllable verse that makes much of Dickinson singable to the melodies of “Amazing Grace” or the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song. For “Winter is Good” I decided to throw out that pattern, turning some lines into refrains and marrying it to a melody similar to the Christmas carol “Joy To the World” instead.

Dickinson’s second verse is a doozy. Just 17 words in her text, but it twists so wildly. “Generic as a Quarry”—there’s winter’s white page I suppose. “And hearty – as a Rose-“ not sure where we go there. Dickinson was an avid gardener, and she no doubt missed her summer plants, but my best guess is just rosy cheeks.  And finally, the concluding two lines “Invited with asperity/But welcome when he goes.” A jokey finish that seems like it’s singing the old joke about the pleasure of hitting oneself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop.

Our various ambivalence aside, that’s what the Winter chapter in the book of nature says to us Northerners, our words arise and are recovered over by the white page; our music only the spaces between silence, soon to be drifted in.

To hear the LYL Band play this hymn to winter with words by Emily Dickinson, click on the gadget below.