The Darkling Thrush

The Darkling Thrush, for soprano, flute and piano, (2002) dur. 12 minutes, poem by Thomas Hardy, written for Hyunah Yu, soprano, Karen Kevra, flute and Jeffrey Chappell, piano, commissioned by Capital City Concerts. First performance January 11, 2003 in Montpelier, Vermont.

also arranged for soprano, violin and piano (2011)

Program Notes

I first read Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” in Karen Armstrong’s book, A History of God, in which she quotes the poem in its entirety on the last page. The poem instantly seemed to me to have musical possibilities so I kept it in mind for future setting. Fortunately it was not until I was already well under way composing that I realized I had embarked upon setting a “classic,” for if I had been aware beforehand of just how famous this poem was I would have thought better of setting it to music! It seemed to me especially appealing that a poem written on the last day of the 19th century should still read so powerfully and seem so apt at the beginning of the 21st.

A gloomy, descending ground bass—an ancient Western musical device— dominates the first half of the poem, interrupted periodically by increasingly vehement rumblings, until they seem to have destroyed the continuity of the music. The third stanza of the poem introduces the bird’s song over a fixed pedal point in the bass; in very long note values, in the middle of the texture, is the “Ode to Joy,” like a cantus firmus, but barely recognizable. I conceived of the bird’s song as the poet’s mystical experience of God, understood as the force that animates all Life, including Hope (we more often hear about Love, but here the emphasis is on Hope). But just as we cannot understand birdsong, we cannot understand the language of God, and some consider the cosmos and all it contains to be “the language of God.” The flute’s warblings are a variation (not entirely audible, certainly on casual hearing) of the ground bass of the first part. That ground I think of as the cyclical workings of human and natural history, punctuated by increasingly horrible wars; but as the birdsong, the ground also has a rising as well as the descending form. The Hope lies in this birdsong: in the deepest winter this bird is singing—why!? “An aged thrush”: this is a very old force, or song. Even in the midst of the bleakest times, Life perseveres; we hope for a better time, for new Life. In the end the poet, conscious of the bleakness of the surroundings and times, having asked himself these questions, stops and simply listens to this birdsong, “frail, small” and inscrutable —and yet it is in its very beauty that we apprehend the force of Hope and indeed of Love as well.