After the premiere of Abide with Me, a number of people came up to me and said “That was such a beautiful depiction of a relationship with God.” An equal number of people said “That was such a beautiful depiction of a gay relationship.” It was a trick question the whole time.
You see, the art song repertoire doesn’t have a lot of queer stories. There are different reasons for this: art songs are usually meant to be performed by a person of any gender, queer stories are only recently more publicly accepted, classical music is (somehow) full of straight people. We don’t have a Gay Winterreise yet (except, well, Winterreise, but that’s another post), and if you’re looking for art songs dealing with being a gay Christian (of all things), you’re going to have an even harder time. It eventually dawned on me that it was my job to tell my story.
Because I am both. I’ve always been both gay and Christian and I always will be. So when I was asked to write a song cycle dealing with Southern themes, it was always going to be about both. Luckily, there’s a literal book of the Bible that’s about spirituality and sexuality and the blurry boundary (or lack thereof) between them and between people.
Ok, that is 230 words of justification for this statement: I stole my idea from Benjamin Britten. Who got his idea from Francis Quarles. Who got his idea from the Bible.
“My beloved is mine and I am his; he grazes among the lilies.” – Song of Solomon 2:16
Francis Quarles, a 17th century English metaphysical poet, had a shtick. His m.o. was to take a Bible verse, then expand it into a poem. This turned out to be a huge hit. (Side note: Langston Hughes was a descendant of Francis Quarles, of all things.)
At the time Britten set Quarles’s poem expounding on the Song of Solomon, he had been with Peter Pears for about 10 years and written him the Michelangelo Sonnets, Peter Grimes, and Albert Herring, among others. And homosexuality was still illegal in England. So when he and Pears performed this new work at a memorial concert (!), it was something of a risk. But more than that it was a statement, a commitment to a personal and professional partnership.
It’s no wonder Britten was seduced by the text. It’s romantic and Romantic, full of vivid imagery and turns of phrase. In short: calling out to be set to music.
See how the beginning sets up the idea of two separates becoming greater than the sum of their parts:
Ev’n like two little bank-divided brooks,
That wash the pebbles with their wanton streams,
And having rang’d and search’d a thousand nooks,
Meet both at length at silver-breasted Thames,
Where in a greater current they conjoin:
So I my best-beloved’s am; so he is mine.
Ev’n so we met; and after long pursuit,
Ev’n so we joyn’d; we both became entire;
No need for either to renew a suit,
For I was flax and he was flames of fire:
Our firm-united souls did more than twine;
So I my best-beloved’s am; so he is mine.
Britten matches the water imagery with an, at first, gentle barcarolle. The more downstream we get, you feel the heart start to race, more and more until “Ev’n so we joyn’d” releases us into a florid, melismatic ecstasy.
The poem continues, logically. Now that we’re together, I wouldn’t trade anything for you. The world’s but theirs, but my beloved’s mine. The music grows muscular, flurried, and the vocal line confident, which brings us to the third section. Britten turns an almost childs’ game of chasing sixths into the breathlessness of new love.
These timid leaps turning into a grand proclamation of:
I love ‘so’ and ‘thus’ in this poem. So he is mine. Thus he is mine. These things happened, so it follows that I am his and he is mine. Divine logic. That is what the last section is all about. Each line, a give and take. He is my altar, I his holy place. I am his guest, and he my living food. We do these things for each other, and the relationship works. I give him songs, he gives me length of days. The vocal lines get freer and freer, wide and floating over the piano’s gently insistent Lombard rhythms, until the release of the final declarations:
Britten and Pears recorded a beautifully matter-of-fact version about 10 years later, the comfort of security.
This melding of the divine and the physical was eye-opening for me. After all, it’s what the Song of Solomon is all about. But I never expected that it could mean something for me. It’s a piece I desperately wished I had written, so I knew I had to write my own, using my own great loves, namely Walt Whitman and the hymns.
The hymns were my first great love, and my first exposure to music for use. I loved knowing that the hymn we were singing was meant to tell you something about your relationship with Jesus, and often was meant for you to realize that it could be stronger. An altar call is still the high mark for me of how music can affect a person.
What Britten gave me was the gift of reclaiming the language that I lost. I can write about divine love and human love. I can be both.
This fall I’ve been joined by the Living Music Resource and the Sarah Isom Center for Women’s and Gender Studies for an exploration of my work and others. On October 24th, I will have a live webcast interview with Nancy Maria Balach of the Living Music Resource. Then on October 27th, we will be giving a concert of art songs, tracing the way from Britten to myself. More to come…