Sunday, November 8, 2015

Songs from the Poets: "Song: Goe and Catch a Falling Starre"

John Donne

No, I haven't suddenly forgotten how to spell (though in the 18th century they used to say it was a poor sort of writer who only knew one way to spell a word). I have performed a lot of early music with guitar and voice, especially lute songs from the 16th century, and I learned that it is very useful to know how the original text was spelled because it can offer clues as to the correct pronunciation, which has shifted over the centuries. So I developed the habit of not updating the spelling for older texts.

This poem, one I have been reading for a very long time, is by John Donne (1572 - 1631). He was one of the group known as the Metaphysical poets. They were known for their philosophical approach to metaphor and humor described as "wit and metaphysical conceits". The poem by Donne is a pretty good example of their approach. I like to think of it as being similar to some blues songs by Robert Johnson such as "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" a similar complaint about womankind, though Donne's poem is more witty than bitter! The original title is just "Song", but as that fails to distinguish it from other similarly titled poems, the first line of the poem is usually included in the title:

Song: Goe and Catch a Falling Starre

Goe, and catche a falling starre,
Get with child a mandrake roote,
Tell me, where all past yeares are,
Or who cleft the Divels foot,
Teach me to heare Mermaides singing,
Or to keep off envies stinging,
And find
What winde
Serves to advance an honest minde.

If thou beest borne to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand daies and nights,
Till age snow white haires on thee,
Thou, when thou retorn'st, wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And sweare
No where
Loves a woman true, and faire.

If thou findst one, let mee know,
Such a Pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet doe not, I would not goe,
Though at next doore wee might meet,
Though shee were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet shee
Will bee
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

My setting came to me like a flash and I hurried to set it down before it evaporated. What I mean is that the running motif in the guitar is what came to me, or the germ of it, which then had to be elaborated for the whole song. Then I realized that the melody should be that of a dance-song, so that came next. Then I created some twisty harmonies and rhythms to reflect the metaphysical conceit of the metaphors: "Go and catch a falling star" indeed! Uniquely among all my songs, this one is strophic, which just means that each of the three verses is set to the same music, except for the cadence that separates them, which changes each time. The only problem I had was the ending, which I rewrote several times before coming up with the one you will hear.

The guitar part is what is known as a moto perpetuo that is, a piece featuring a steady stream of fairly quick notes. This is challenging to play and the difficulty is increased a bit by the complex groupings of notes shared by both the voice and guitar. A violinist friend thinks that it sounds a bit like Bach, but the harmonies are a bit too wayward for that! In any case, I hope you enjoy the song!


Christine Lacroix said...

Nice piece Bryan!

Christine Lacroix said...

I'm actually very surprised that I enjoy your music. A few months ago I don't think I would have. Maybe you've led us into it?

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks!! I regard your approval as a real plus.

A lot of academically-trained contemporary composers have the odd idea that they are supposed to be writing clever music to intrigue their fellow composers. But I write first of all for the performers--I want to engage them--and secondly for the general listener, whom I really, really hope will like the music!

You might not like all my music, but all the Songs from the Poets refer to earlier musical styles, so there is always something to hold on to.

What do you like about Goe and Catch a Falling Starre?

Christine Lacroix said...

You said that your music refers to earlier styles and maybe that's what I like. I was at Les-Baux-de Provence one day some years ago and there was a performance on old instruments in a medieval chapel. I bought the cd on the way out. It was some sort of music from the middle ages or Renaissance. The cd was stolen out of my car so I can't tell you what it was. But your pieces remind me of it. Asking me why I like a piece of music is asking me to explain why I prefer vanilla to chocolate or the color red to blue. Impossible. I'm always amazed that you can intellectualize it. I don't think you'll like the 2cellos U2 cover. I posted it for Anonymous but if he didn't click on 'send follow up comments to...' he'll never know he was answered. If you'd like to listen to something you've never heard and MIGHT like try this:

Bryan Townsend said...

Fair enough! As a performer I have spent a lot of time playing music from the Middle Ages up to now, so all those different styles seem familiar to me.