A tree telling of Orpheus

for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, viola and cello

Some time in the '80s, the editor of a musical journal asked me for a statement on composing. Here is something of what I wrote:

The quiet in which I compose is not a different part of my world, set apart in contrast to noise, bustle and contradictions. This quiet is the focal point in which everything stills, becomes transparent; and I can listen, not only to what I know, but also to what I don't know I know.

In silence, listening. Listening for what arises of its own accord. Listening to this sound, discrete and particular, letting it grow in its own way. Transcribing the sound, following its shape with a pencil, is not a separate thing. Composition is the activity of listening. Listening, not before, not after. Now....

Here are the first lines of the poem by Denise Levertov, telling of a tree, and how it first heard the song of Orpheus, rippling through the mists of early morning. The tree is speaking:

White dawn. Stillness. When the rippling began I took it for sea-wind, coming to our valley with rumours of salt, of treeless horizons. But the white fog didn't stir; the leaves of my brothers remained outstretched, unmoving. Yet the rippling drew nearer - and then my own outermost branches began to tingle, almost as if fire had been lit below them, too close, and their twig-tips were drying and curling. Yet I was not afraid, only deeply alert.

Generally, I've not been moved to set a poem which is so complete in itself; but this poem stirred me to compose, as Orpheus' lyre stirred the leaves of the tree. From my hearing the sound of the first few bars, - white dawn, stillness - the music swiftly and easily spun itself to the end. Easy for me perhaps, but it's quite a challenge for the soprano, not just in virtuosity, but also in stamina: for 24 minutes, she is the tree, leading the other trees in their dance with Orpheus, over hill, over dale, and finally, to the stillness of the coda. The poem continues:

I was the first to see him, for I grew out on the pasture slope, beyond the forest. He was a man, it seemed: the two moving stems, the short trunk, the two arm-branches, flexible, each with five leafless twigs at their ends, and the head that’s crowned by brown or gold grass, bearing a face not like the beaked face of a bird, more like a flower’s. He carried a burden made of some cut branch bent while it was green, strands of a vine tight-stretched across it. From this, when he touched it, and from his voice which unlike the wind’s voice had no need of our leaves and branches to complete its sound, came the ripple. But it was no longer a ripple (he had come near and stopped in my first shadow) it was a wave that bathed me as if rain rose from below and around me instead of falling. And what I felt was no longer a dry tingling: I seemed to be singing as he sang, I seemed to know what the lark knows; all my sap was mounting towards the sun that by now had risen, the mist was rising, the grass was drying, yet my roots felt music moisten them deep under earth. He came still closer, leaned on my trunk: the bark thrilled like a leaf still-folded. Music! There was no twig of me not trembling with joy and fear. Then as he sang it was no longer sounds only that made the music: he spoke, and as no tree listens I listened, and language came into my roots out of the earth, into my bark out of the air, into the pores of my greenest shoots gently as dew and there was no word he sang but I knew its meaning. He told of journeys, of where sun and moon go while we stand in the dark, of an earth journey he dreamt he would take some day deeper than roots . . . He told of the dreams of man, wars, passions, griefs, and I, a tree, understood words- ah, it seemed my thick bark would split like a sapling’s that grew too fast in spring when a late frost wounds it. Fire he sang, that trees fear, and I, a tree, rejoiced in its flames. New buds broke forth from me though it was full summer. As though his lyre (now I knew its name) were both frost and fire, its chords flamed up to the crown of me. I was seed again. I was fern in the swamp. I was coal. And at the heart of my wood (so close was I to becoming man or a god) there was a kind of silence, a kind of sickness, something akin to what men call boredom, something (the poem descends a scale, a stream over stones) that gives to a candle its coldness in the midst of its burning, he said. It was then, when in the blaze of his power that reached me and changed me I thought I should fall my length, that the singer began to leave me. Slowly moved from my noon shadow to open light, words leaping and dancing over his shoulders back to me rivery sweep of lyre-tones becoming slowly again ripple. And I in terror but not in doubt of what I must do in anguish, in haste, wrenched from the earth root after root, the soil heaving and cracking, the moss tearing asunder- and behind me the others, my brothers forgotten since dawn. In the forest they too had heard, and were pulling their roots in pain out of a thousand years’ layers of dead leaves, rolling the rocks away, breaking themselves out of their depths. You would have thought we would lose the sound of the lyre, of the singing so dreadful the storm-sounds were, where there was no storm, no wind but the rush of our branches moving, our trunks breasting the air. But the music! The music reached us. Clumsily, stumbling over our own roots, rustling our leaves in answer, we moved, we followed. All day we followed, up hill and down. We learned to dance, for he would stop, where the ground was flat, and words he said taught us to leap and to wind in and out around one another in figures the lyre’s measure designed. The singer laughed till he wept to see us, he was so glad. At sunset we came to this place I stand in, this knoll with its ancient grove that was bare grass then. In the last light of that day his song became farewell. He stilled our longing. He sang our sun-dried roots back into the earth, watered them: all-night rain of music so quiet we could almost not hear it in the moonless dark. By dawn he was gone. We have stood here since, in our new life. We have waited. He does not return. It is said he made his earth-journey, and lost what he sought. It is said they felled him and cut up his limbs for firewood. And it is said his head still sang and was swept out to sea singing. Perhaps he will not return. But what we have lived comes back to us. We see more. We feel, as our rings increase, something that lifts our branches, that stretches our furthest leaf-tips further. The wind, the birds, do not sound poorer, but clearer, recalling our agony, and the way we danced. The music!

from Relearning the Alphabet (1970) published by New Directions Publishing Corporation. Copyright © Denise Levertov 1970. Reproduced by permission of the author.

A tree telling of Orpheus was commissioned by the English ensemble, GEMINI and the score is dedicated to Michael Hall.