maggie and milly and molly and may

There’s this poem by E. E. Cummings:

maggie and milly and molly and may

went down to the beach(to play one day)


and maggie discovered a shell that sang

so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and


milly befriended and stranded star

whose rays five languid fingers were;


and molly was chased by a horrible thing

which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and


may came home with a smooth round stone

as small as a world and as large as alone.


For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

I really love this poem. You can spend all the time you like looking into the relationships between the girls and the what they find on the beach. It’s nice. But I predict that what you’ll find is influenced by what you bring. Which is the point of the poem.

As a conductor working on an academic calendar, the summer means looking for new repertoire for the coming semester and year. When I look for new music, I try to find something teachable in it in terms of musical content, but I also look for something that connects to me, and that might connect to my singers. Good repertoire, like good poetry, like the sea, has lots in it to connect to. And it’s a process that teaches me about myself.

Why do I love one piece, but not another? What in a song do I recognize as a part of myself, and why can’t I see myself in another? And how has this changed over time?

The more I learn about music and myself, the more music I like. For example, I have always loved the Samuel Barber setting of “Sure on this Shining Night”:

All Barber’s music fits the idiom he’s writing for: he knows how to write a line that fits singers’ voices. And he has a feel for setting text that lifts the poetry even further beyond its original capacity of expression. Sensitive and luxurious is Barber’s choral music. As long as you have a choir with basic skills, any performance of it will be good. Because what’s on the page just works.

And when you look deeper, the relationship between the text and music rings true for me. That melody that descends over and over until it gathers strength enough to soar to “all is healed, all is health.” The peace and stillness of “hearts all whole.” It feels right, it feels like the poem feels to me.

But, on the other hand, Morten Lauridsen’s setting of the same poem always left me flat:

I’ve always felt like Lauridsen took a musical formula that has worked for a bunch of this other songs with ethereal atmosphere, and imposed it on this poem without needing it to relate specifically to how this poem feels or what it’s about.  After all, the harmonies and the shapes of the melismas have a great deal in common with other Lauridsen songs. It seems to me that the notated rhythm of the text does not fit the natural cadence of the text. You have to fight the meter on the page to get comprehensible, evocative declamation out of the text and musical line. You would need a truly outstanding choir to find the balance between the notated rhythm and the expression of the text.

I heard this performed at a festival I was adjudicating last week, and mentioned to my colleague — someone I had never met before, though that apparently isn’t enough to stop me from being an opinionated loudmouth — that I thought the piece was not very good. He disagreed; he called it “great.”

Great? What? Nah…

Good? Maybe.

Catchy? Pretty? Absolutely.

“What am I missing,” I asked m’colleague, “that makes it great?”

He started with my objection to the awkward rhythm and repeated notes, calling it chantlike. I still disagreed: chant has no barlines to fight with to make the singing of the text naturally, expressively declamatory. I mean, a big ascending leap on a metrically significant beat to the word “of?” Eew. So then he talked about the leaping melismas and how they evoke twinkling stars. And I thought, “okay… maybe. That’s nice. But it doesn’t make it ‘great.'” So then he described the poem’s source of inspiration from solo airplane flight (I googled this, but a nonacademic search didn’t confirm it. I’d have to do some legit research if I were to incorporate it into my own interpretation; but it is from a collection called Permit Me a Voyage, so… yeah.), and a sense of awestruck distance from the the ground, gliding in disembodied wonder between earth and sky. And I thought, “Huh. He really should have opened his argument with that.” And then I thought, “Yeah, that might be in there. I’ve never heard it, but I see how it could be. I think I need to hear this dude’s performance of it.”

His performance of it is not publicly available, so I found the best YouTube video of it that I could: Renee Clausen and the Concordia Choir. I mean, hell, Renee Clausen is a deeply thoughtful, artistic composer in his own right. He wouldn’t select repertoire that’s just commercially appealing pablum: he probably sees something deeper in this repertoire. If anyone can squeeze some meaning out of this piece, surely they can. It’s a beautiful choir. Their performance certainly lacks the mechanical, typewritery chatter that seems to come off the page when average choirs perform this setting. Still, even they splat a couple of those wide ascending leaps. Do I hear in it the overwhelmed awe of the poet? Does that eighth rest on beat one seem like the breathless hesitation of a man overcome by emotion?

Is this an experience or a feeling that is close to my own heart?

Can I be persuaded to believe in the composer’s perspective deeply enough to convince my choir to buy in? Are they going to feel it in the music? Can I bring that to them?

Maybe. Now that I have more possibilities in my imagination: maybe.

My point is, who we are is inextricable from the music we make. As long as we’re aware of that — and listen to the information that gives us without judgement — it’s a tool for increasing our understanding of the music and ourselves… which makes the music better.

Which makes us better.

Which makes the music better.


You get it.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

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One Response to maggie and milly and molly and may

  1. Sometimes choral music is a vehicle for expression of the text, but sometimes the text is more a vehicle for the music. Lauridsen’s music always feels to me like it fits in the second category– I’ve gotten the best results when I focus more on the music than the text. I think that’s part of why his settings of Latin and Italian texts seem to be more popular with American choirs; we don’t know those languages as well, and it’s easier to get singers to focus on the musical shapes.

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