The Field

TTBB choir (div) and tenor (field) drum (or snare drum w/ snares off)


Recording credit: Northeast premiere performance by Harvard Glee Club,
conducted by Andrew Clark in Sanders Theater, Harvard University, Cambridge MA;
April 4, 2015

The Field-perusal

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TEXT

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind,
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them.
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom—
A field where a thousand corpses lie.
– Stephen Crane, from War is Kind

REFRAIN:
Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh—
– Herman Melville, from Shiloh. A Requiem (April 1862.)

Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
Because your father tumbles in the yellow trenches,
Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Swift blazing flag of the regiment,
Eagle with crest of red and gold,
These men were born to drill and die.
Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
Make plain to them the excellence of killing
And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

Mother whose heart hung humble as a button
On the bright splendid shroud of your son,
Do not weep.
War is kind!
– Stephen Crane, from War is Kind

REFRAIN:
Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh—
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.

Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh—
The church so lone…
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there—
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—
– Herman Melville, from Shiloh. A Requiem (April 1862.)

NOTE: The references above to the church and to the “natural prayer of dying foemen mingled there” are the catalysts for the Teasdale text below, which becomes their mutual dying realization, epiphany, and prayer, sung to the tune of “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” by George F. Root (1863), a song well-known to both the Union and the Confederate soldiers.

CHORALE/HYMN:
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And [the] swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, [not] bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And [the] swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
– adapted from Sara Teasdale: There Will Come Soft Rains (War Time)

REFRAIN:
Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
– Herman Melville, from Shiloh. A Requiem (April 1862.)

PROGRAM NOTES

EXTENDED PROGRAM NOTE
The Field was commissioned by the Harvard Glee Club and their conductor Andrew Clark for a concert commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. This work went through several different incarnations before we settled on the theme of commemorating the Civil War. As I had wanted to compose something to observe this momentous event in American history, this was the perfect opportunity. I have quite a large collection of Civil War poetry, so I dove deep into those sources, and I narrowed the possibilities down to three poems that I had wanted to set for many years: Stephen Crane’s War is Kind, Herman Melville’s well-known Shiloh (which has been set musically many times), and Sara Teasdale’s There Will Come Soft Rains, subtitled (War Time), the last of which was actually written about WWI.

As I spent more time with these poems, trying to decide which one to set, I was struck by the way in which the three poems were remarkably complementary to one another. In Crane’s intensely moving poem, the “field where a thousand corpses lie” was echoed in Melville’s “forest-field of Shiloh,” while the swallows and the April rain in Melville’s Shiloh were hauntingly echoed in the very first stanza of Teasdale’s evocative poem. As a result of seeing these amazing connections between the poems, I decided that they were really all part of the same narrative, as if through different lenses and from different perspectives, each one a prism that yields a different refraction of the same scene. Gaining this realization, I decided to find a way to weave the texts together, and after many iterations, trimming, and adaptations of the texts, I settled on a final version.

One of the great joys of commissions is the opportunity to collaborate on the concept of the work with the conductor of the commissioning organization. HGC’s conductor, Andy Clark, was a particularly inspiring collaborator, with his wonderful sensibilities of head and heart, his knowledge of history, and his love of literature. When I shared what had virtually become a libretto with Andy, he immediately saw the numerous thematic connections between the poems and was as amazed and moved by the connections as I was. So…we knew we were on to something.

The most powerful aspect of combining these three poems was the way in which each one reinforces and amplifies the images and meanings in the other two, not the least of which are the images of the swallows flying over the field, which to me are the most chilling images amongst the three poems. The indifferent beauty of the swallows flying low over the field, with its thousands of corpses lying beneath the beautiful and chaotic geometry of their flight, the swallows must have flown within mere inches of the dead and dying men, but without care or even the ability to care. If you’ve ever watched swallows fly low over a field, you have no doubt been struck with the combination of chaotic beauty, athleticism, and the fear that the delicate birds will smash into one another in their erratic, entwining flight patterns. To place that beautiful scene over a corpse-strewn field is almost unimaginable. The music for the Melville’s swallows was the first music I composed for the work, and it serves as a kind of haunting refrain throughout.

As I conceived of the narrative formed by these three poems, I eventually decided to allow the narrative in Melville’s Shiloh “Of dying foemen mingled there—Foemen at morn, but friends at eve” to lead into Teasdale’s There Will Come Soft Rains, which serves as a sort of “moral of the story,” but with the effect of something like an emotional punch in the gut. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to end with the Teasdale and that I wanted to set it as something of a hymn, especially given the references in Melville’s poem to “the church of Shiloh.” As I fleshed out the concept, I was particularly moved by Melville’s description of the former enemies “at morn” becoming friends by the evening. But were they truly “friends,” or did they simply share something in common that inextricably bound them as brothers sharing the same fate? They all shared “many a parting groan And natural prayer of dying foemen mingled there” as Melville describes the ghastly, moving scene. Here they were, lying one next to the other, the divisions of Blue and Gray, North and South erased by their common fates, which now bound them together. Once that image had settled into my head and heart, I realized what the end of the work was: the Teasdale text is sung by the dying soldiers as a shared epiphany, the realization of what they had done to one another, their common confession, as it were. In order to set this scene, I wanted to use Civil-War-era music that would serve to reinforce this shared bond, so I decided to use a song that would have been well-known to soldiers on both sides: the Civil War song Just Before the Battle Mother, words and music by George F. Root. Although most of Root’s song is for solo voice, a section of it includes a four-part choral setting that encompasses most of the musical phrases in the song. In order to maintain the integrity of Root’s original choral writing, I applied his choral setting to all musical phrases in the song and transposed it into a key that worked both for the prevailing tonality of The Field and for the vocal ranges of the four-part men’s chorus. In terms of mapping the Teasdale poem onto Root’s song, remarkably little adaptation was required in order for Root’s music and Teasdale’s text to match one another. This closing section of The Field symbolizes the common bond that united the former foes as they awaited their fate, while perhaps watching the ironic beauty of the swallows “skimming lightly, wheeling still” above them as they lay dying in the field of Shiloh.

ABRIDGED PROGRAM NOTE
The Field was commissioned by the Harvard Glee Club and their conductor Andrew Clark for a concert commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. The work is based on three poems that I had wanted to set for many years: Stephen Crane’s War is Kind, Herman Melville’s well-known Shiloh, and Sara Teasdale’s There Will Come Soft Rains, which is actually about WWI. Originally, I planned to use just one of the poems, but as I reread them, I was struck by how complementary they were. Crane’s “field where a thousand corpses lie” was echoed in Melville’s “forest-field of Shiloh,” and the indifferent beauty of the swallows and April rain in Melville’s Shiloh were hauntingly echoed in Teasdale’s poem. As a result, I decided to weave the texts together into a single narrative.

Two aspects of the poems were central to the narrative of the work. First was the indifferent beauty of the swallows flying low over the field, with its thousands of ghastly corpses and dying men lying beneath the beautiful, chaotic geometry of the swallows’ flight. This music was the first part of the work I composed and serves as a haunting refrain. The second aspect of the poems and the narrative is that I allowed the narrative in Melville’s Shiloh “Of dying foemen mingled there—Foemen at morn, but friends at eve” to lead into Teasdale’s There Will Come Soft Rains, which serves as a sort of “moral of the story.” But one question nagged at me: What made these former foes into friends? Here they were, lying one next to the other dying or dead already, the divisions of Blue and Gray, North and South erased by their shared fates. Thus, the concept for the end of the work emerged: the Teasdale text as sung by the dying soldiers is a shared epiphany, the stark realization of what they had done to one another. In order to underscore this scene, I used a Civil-War-era song well-known to soldiers on both sides, which reinforces their shared bond: Just Before the Battle Mother. Thus, the closing section of The Field symbolizes the common bond that united the former foes as they awaited their ultimate fate, while perhaps watching the ironic beauty of the swallows “skimming lightly, wheeling still” above them as they lay dying in the field of Shiloh.