One criterion for describing the characteristics of an era in music history is the relationship of the text to the music: which is paramount? Perhaps the bridge between the Renaissance and Baroque wins the Text Importance Prize–madrigals, monody, recitative… Music existed to serve text.
I’m preparing “In Remembrance” by Eleanor Daley for an audition. It’s lovely, of course, but I keep looking for something more and not finding anything. But there must be something there. I mean, it’s clearly very appealing–people perform it so much that YouTube has videos of a wide variety of choirs performing it, and this choir chose it as the song they’re willing to sing over and over again for every conductor they audition.
I realized I was looking in the wrong place. I’m looking at the music, but the text is where the appeal is. This exposed my woeful bias, the prejudice I have for musical content. Silly me: the music is there to serve the text–the text is the shrimp, the music is the grits. Both delicious, but one is certainly the star.
This is the text:
Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there. I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the diamond glints on snow. I am the sunlight on ripened grain. I am the gentle autumn rain. When you awaken in the morning’s hush, I am the swift uplifting rush Of quiet birds in circled flight. I am the soft stars that shine at night. Do not stand at my grave and cry; I am not there. I did not die.
So, having learned something about myself, I looked further into the text. Because the internet is a wondrous place, I found a very useful and thorough piece of research which clarifies the authorship and history a bit. (In the score, it says “Anonymous” because the music was written in 1993, before this research had been done.) Anyway, what I took away from that was that the poem was viral, touching people so effectively that it became part of common knowledge, part of American culture.
Alan Chapman, author of the link above, says in that article:
This instinctive aspect of language is fascinating, and I am open to ideas about why the poem works so well on an instinctive level.
Perhaps a factor is the repeating use of the ‘I am’ statements, which resonate with well known biblical statements, notably some attributed by John to Jesus (I am the bread…, I am the light…, I am the way…, I am the true vine…, etc).
Perhaps we are genetically or otherwise conditioned to respond the structure of the poem.
Yeah, “instinctive.” Something instinctive about the popular response to the poem, to its knitting itself into our collective consciousness.
And when you’ve got a text like that, the music just has to stay out of its way. Which is what the song does.
Here’s the performance I liked best on YouTube.