Monday, December 11, 2006

Looking ahead: The Coolin

The Coolin
Music by Samuel Barber
Text: James Stephens (1880-1950)

Come with me, under my coat,
And we will drink our fill
Of the milk of the white goat,
Or wine if it be thy will

And we will talk, until
Talk is a trouble, too,
Out on the side of the hill;
And nothing is left to do,

But an eye to look into an eye;
And a hand in a hand to slip;
And a sigh to answer a sigh;
And a lip to find out a lip!

What if the night be black!
Or the air on the mountain chill!
Where the goat lies down in her track,
And all but the fern is still!

Stay with me, under my coat!
And we will drink our fill
Of the milk of the white goat,
Out on the side of the hill!

Fantastic recording on emusic here (Dale Warland Singers: Reincarnations) Itunes link here.
About James Stephens.

The following notes come from this website.

The text of Reincarnations has a double history. James Stephens (1882-1950) was an Irish author writing in English whose output was dominated by nostalgia and melancholy over lost traditional Ireland. Two of these texts are "after the Irish of Raftery," i.e., they are translated and reworked from songs in the Irish language – what we call Gaelic – by the musician/poet Antoine O Reachtabhra, transliterated as Anthony Raftery. Raftery (1784-1835) was among the last of the great blind Irish harpists. Irish culture had a great bardic tradition with no meaningful distinction between song and poetry, and many of the greatest bards were blind. (The traditional self-accompaniment for the bard was the harp.) Harpists wandered from court to court, performing and improvising songs, taking maximum advantage of the elaborate code of aristocratic hospitality. Among the most common genres were songs of praise, the lament, the extended poetic insult, and the vision song. In setting these words to music, Barber restores them to their original purpose, not as poems to be read but as lyrics for song.

Two of the songs in the Reincarnations cycle – "Mary Hynes" and "The Coolin" – fall into the traditional category of love song or praise for a beautiful woman. Note in "Mary Hynes" the repeated use of visual imagery by the blind artist singing of the woman's beauty, and the concluding line "no good sight is good until by great good luck you see the blossom of branches walking towards you, airily, airily." The irony of this line would not have been lost on Raftery's original audience. The second piece is a tribute to Anthony Daly, a martyr hanged in 1820 for leading an agrarian terrorist organization. He was also accused of shooting at another man, a charge he vehemently denied: "If I did, though I have but one eye, I would have hit him." Nonetheless, he was convicted and sent to the gallows. Raftery, who witnessed the hanging, composed a bard's curse on those responsible for the death. Thus the mood is more of retaliation than of mourning, and legend has it that calamity did befall those whom he cursed! Barber makes expressive use of the ancient device of pedal point, with the note E sounded below or above the melody for all but four measures of the piece. The insistence of that pitch and repetition of Anthony's name heightens the impact.

The word coolin, used as the title of the third piece, refers to a lock of hair or "curleen" that grew on a young girl's neck and came to be used as a term for one's sweetheart. Stephens wrote: "I sought to represent that state which is almost entirely a condition of dream wherein the passion of love has almost overreached itself and is sinking into a motionless languor." Barber uses a gentle siciliano rhythm for this old Irish love song, filtered through Stephens's romantic poetry.‡

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would like to know if anyone knew what the reference in "The Coolin" about drinking our fill of the milk if the white goat was referring to?