Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Tales Not Told

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Tales Not Told

Article excerpt

TALES NOT TOLD

Edward Knight's most recent song cycle, Tales Not Told, takes as its subject matter the lives of six American pioneer women who lived and died in extraordinary times. Each was a heroine in her own way: Helen Paddock, the Civil War widow in Kankakee, Illinois; Patience Brewster, who died of the fever in Plymouth colony; Keziah Keyes, the young girl who was sent for help as an Indian raid was taking place on her home during the Revolutionary War; Sarah Towne Cloyce, charged with her two sisters and Goody Proctor in the Salem witch trials; Bessie Barton, granddaughter of Helen Paddock, who dreams of the man she might have married; and Mary Dyer, hanged on Boston Commons for her Quaker beliefs. In various ways, all these women lived in times of intolerance-slavery, Puritanism, colonial rule, snobbish society. Some fought it personally, and others simply endured. In these wonderful poems by Mary Jane Alexander, each woman tells her own story.

The story of the song cycle itself is fascinating. The six women are all direct ancestors of the composer on his maternal grandmother's side, and the poet, Knight's wife, researched the histories of the women and wrote the poems that Knight set to music for their children. This is a unique way to preserve family history, and the direct lineage makes the composer truly an "Ur-American" composer.

Knight is quite sensitive both to meaning and imagery in the texts of these songs. He captures exactly the right atmosphere and overall motion of each poem as well as many details of imagery in his music. "Helen Paddock" (the composer's three-great grandmother) begins with march-like music in 7/8, a subtle reflection of the first word of the poem: "Seven girls he fathered, proudly-Seven daughters and five boys" as well as a means of setting the scene for the husband and father to march off to war "in a coat of Union blue." The irregular meter also hints at the disruption of the even flow of family life in Kankakee. The woman describes her husband, who had "worked the bench with Lincoln" and had a bright future; but at forty-six he "was put in charge of soldiers,/ To be mustered up for war." He promised that all their tomorrows would be better than the past, but "tomorrow never came." On the day before Helen's birthday, her husbands body came home, and she lived on for fifty years with "just his name." Twice in the poem, she stops her narrative to remember him: "I close my eyes and I see him standing. I close my eyes and fly away." These lines are set to different music, lyric and flowing, as if in a reverie. The last stanza continues the drumbeat march, but in 4/4 except for one 7/4 measure, and ends softly, as from a great distance. Helen Paddock's name and amount of pension can be found online in the records of Civil War pensions for the State of Illinois.

"Patience Brewster" (the composer's ten-great grandmother) was the daughter of William Brewster who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 to found New Plymouth Colony and become its religious leader. Patience, born in 1603 in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, England, was seventeen years old when her father sailed for the New World. She married in Plymouth Colony and lived there until her death of "the fever" in 1634. She speaks from her grave, dreaming of her home in Nottinghamshire, "so far from Pilgrim graves." But "fever burned my life away,/ I sleep in Plymouth earth." The lyric melody of the vocal line, rhythmically true both to word stress and to poetic motion, lies far below the two-voice piano part that floats high on the keyboard. The soft flowing eighth note lines serve several poetic functions: the dreaming-from-the-grave nature of the poem, the movement of the remembered flowers and their waves of aroma, the lightly dissonant hallucinatory effect of the fever that "burned my life away," and "The May flow'rs on Coles Hill [that] sway/ Without a trace of mirth." It seems even the flowers in Plymouth Colony were not allowed any outward expression of happiness. …

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