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Dead Songs (1991)

for soprano, clarinet, cello, and piano

Dead Songs was composed in June 1991 and consists of settings of texts adapted from epitaphs collected from New South Wales seaside cemeteries at Wombarra, Bulli, South Head and Waverley. Many of the texts are combinations of several different epitaphs (such as No.1, No. 4 and No. 8) and in some cases graffiti or other found texts that made a useful connection have found their way into the work. It was the simplicity of expression, the occasional unintentional humour and even the heartfelt Australian mawkishness of the texts that attracted me to them as sources for a song cycle. The work is laid out quite formally and with some musical references, for example to Schubert's demonic transportation in No. 4, to Bach in No. 8 and Josquin in No. 9.

If there is a metaphor in the work as a whole it can be seen most clearly in the last song. Taken from several decrepit headstones, the text misses the end of most lines and in my setting is left that way - as a kind of floundering expression in the face of bigger obstacles. The analogy here relates to the physical position of the cemeteries as best exemplified by Wombarra with its neat denominational arrangement of the dead seeming somehow insignificant against the slow motion oblivion of sea and wind tearing away at the crumbling cliff edges.

1. Buried at Sea
Gently his voice calleth
Come and rest.
The midnight stars are shining upon his silent grave,
Where sleepeth without dreaming the one we could not save.
Love knows no death,
Spirits meet across the bridge.

2. His Dust
Gone are the faces we loved so dear
Silent the voices, we loved to hear
Far, too far, from sight or speech,
But not too far for our thoughts to reach.
Anchored by love, death cannot sear.
Oh! How we miss them, and will do for ever.

3. And Underneath are the Everlasting Arms
clarinet and piano

4. Ahead of His Time: Little Jackie, Killed by a Taxi Cab, 1911
Our little treasure
Our little joy.
"Here I am where I want to be
In the Haven under the Hill."
Our little sunbeam
Our darling boy.
"Here I am where I want to be
In the Haven under the Hill."
Mummie and Daddy's Pal.

5. Dead Devils [open book with graffiti]
clarinet, 'cello and piano

6. Agnus Dei
A few weeks of joy
A lifetime of memories.
He shall gather the lambs in his arms and
Carry them in his bosom.

7. The Tahiti-Greycliffe Disaster, Sydney Harbour, 1927
It seems but a day since he bade us goodbye
His heart full of hope and his spirit so high
How little we thought when he left us that day
The grim hand of death would soon tear him away
So gentle and kind - how we miss his dear face
Now we know that on earth we can ne'er fill his place
Tho' asleep in the saviour, where grief is unknown
In sorrow and tears are his loved ones at home.

8. Peace Perfect Peace
Father and mother safe in the vale
Watch for the boatman, wait for the sail,
Bearing the loved ones over the tide
Into the harbour, near to their side.
"Master Mariner - Dead At Sea."

9. Unreconstructed Sentiment [Crumbled Deploration]
Sadly . . .
A sudden change at God's . . .
He had not time to . . .
A little longer . . .
. . . we too shall leave,
Oh loved one
A little while longer . . .
. . . we too shall leave,
For that beautiful shore.
We pray that . . .
. . . with the angels now.

 

Dead songs photo
‘Little Jackie’ (1910). Standing second from the right, his epitaph formed the basis of the fourth song in Dead Songs. Photo courtesy of the McGoldrick family.

Texts of Dead Songs in a powerpoint slideshow – suitable for performance use. (Slides by Stephen Emmerson)

 

 

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