The Rock and the Singing Tree


THERE lie before me, as I write, a volume of familiar music and a little manuscript book of poems. The music is that exquisite collection of instrumental lyrics, the Lieder ohne Worte, which to readers even of this day awaken not alone a gracious train of sound-pictures, but the suggestion, and as it were the memory, of the brief life, the genius and joyous personality, of their composer; compositions which amid all the revolutions of the musical world remain a little apart, but unchanged, because people have the habit of loving them and cannot well break it. The poems which have lately fallen in my way, and in which I have found a charming and very genuine element of interest, have a connection with the music which it is not easy to define. Written as songs to accompany its measures, they have not merely, and perhaps not quite, the character of words made to music. They are written, for one thing, without the knowledge of musical phrasing which would render them available without alteration for that purpose; yet they run closer to the theme than poems suggested, as in the case of Miss Lazarus’ Phantasies, by musical compositions, at the same time leading us along a roadbed of their own. It is perhaps hardly a critical homage to the genius of the composer to furnish words to songs intended to convey the sense of language through another element, — to compositions purposely left ohne Worte. — yet it has been already done in several instances, with the adaptation of the music to the voice, a process which the copy before me has not yet undergone ; and if excuse is needed for the existence of these new song-words, it is to be found in the sincerity and wholeness of purpose which binds a handful of verses, technically simple and by no means flawless, to each other and to the music which inspired them. They have not been critically or deliberately brought into being, but are the record of thoughts which sang themselves in the writer’s mind to a few loved and well-conned strains.

To catch the full tones of any art we must listen with our lives. We all do this instinctively more or less, giving as well as receiving, lending of our circumstance to poem or melody, and are moved by them in proportion as life has moved us. In these verses dedicated to Mendelssohn I find a synthesis of the effect of his mood upon the tidewave of another mind in an element remote from that in which the original Lieder were created. The work of a New England woman living in a solitary region of the West, they show no attempt in the selection of themes to keep to such classical or romantic ideas as may be supposed to have inspired a musician cradled in the halcyon nest of German idealism ; on the contrary, every stone in the new environment is brought as if toward a monument; all the doors of a modern life are flung open to the strains. The result is sometimes a curious sort of anachronism, as in the borrowing of Mendelssohn’s music for the commemoration of such recent events as the wreck at Samoa or the death of Father Damien ; sometimes it is visible in a little over-strenuousness of tone, and in the introduction of problems possibly a little deeper and more troubled than were touched by the keys of the instrument under the fingers of the composer. All this belongs to the fact that it is a life which has listened, and has heard its steadfast purpose as well as its changing fancies played to it in music, — a life which has kept its cell somewhere apart, and distilled its labor of every day into a little drop of verse.

In the case of those compositions already associated with a name this has in all instances been adhered to, as in the Hunting Song, Consolation, and the various Gondellieder. The spirit is reproduced in these pieces with great felicity, notably in the Spinning Song, where the variations and changes of tone are made to express the idea of beguiling noises from without, while the underlying whirr of the wheel accompanies the answer of the spinner, resolutely and cheerfully keeping to her labor and to the happy home life which it sustains and symbolizes. In other instances the subject is chosen by the writer, and the music attached to a story or fancy suggested by it. No. 1, an Andante con moto, with its running accompaniment of playful feeling along a tenderly emphasized theme, is fitted to the Endymion story, that favorite throughout art for the cool, the elusive, the magic quality of its passion.


By enchantment led away
Young Endymion doth stray.
Ever as he goes he cries,
Echo mockingly replies.
Dian swiftly follows after,
Hushed the silvery woodland laughter,
And, as after him she hies,
She with Echo mocking cries.
Now he plucks the ripe fruits from their thorns
by the way,
And he sings as he wanders a roundelay,
Till a thousand drowsy languors creep,
And he flings himself down ‘ neath the trees to sleep,
To sleep.
Now Dian comes, impelled by Love,
To seek Endymion in the grove.
A tender light is in her eyes,
Unseen her maiden, blushes rise,
While o’er her heart, where Love did sleep,
She feels a thousand pulses leap.
Half frightened by unwonted bliss,
She wakes Endymion with a kiss.

There is a little strain of Fretcher’s sylvan note here prettily played upon an ancient fancy. There is also a Sunrise, very fresh in feeling, which I cannot quote for fear of exceeding the time allowed to a member of the Club, and a little group of mountain pictures called Monadnock, — the writer chooses, like Emerson, the mountain which holds the message of the heights for a certain quarter of New England, — which have to be omitted on the same ground. The lovely air numbered 44, with its gentle, measured movement, carried in the treble to a soft brightening as of hope, has a little word - accompaniment with something of the simplicity and inwardness of George MacDonald’s lyrics.

Thy minute comes, Thy minute goes,
As used or wasted, black or rose.
I would that all my days could be
Like banks of flowers bloomed for Thee,
Wherein Thine eye, well pleased, might find
Thy sunshine glad, Thy showers kind.

The underlying plan of the songwords is the working out of the progress of a soul through pleasure, happiness, disappointment, trial, and doubt up to blessedness and the joy that comes through faith. That such a plan runs through the Mendelssohn lyrics is not to be supposed ; there is no such order, for one thing, and to introduce it in regular sequence would require some shuffling of the numbers. But there is no attempt here to tamper with the character of the music, or to force it within the set bounds of a purpose; the unity of idea is carried on through variety, is felt rather than enforced, and is the result of that dualism which lias already been alluded to, — of the individuality and mental experience of the copyist entering as an element of sympathy and interpretation into the rendering of the master’s work. In the song the title of which has been chosen by the writer as a general designation of the collection, the adaptation of a fairy-tale theme, or rather parable, to a very varied piece of music has been accomplished with sympathetic and happy result. The composition is No. 17, and its weird, fantastic quality, its transition from serenity to storm and again to hope, its thread of dream and of reality, are all woven into incident with a touch of fancy as well as of moral significance.


Out from the Land of Youth at last
My heavy-freighted vessel passed.
Proudly I viewed her white sails high,
Strongwas the keel did underlie. Bravely I turned her toward the west,
No fear of danger in my breast. Lo! in mid-ocean, far from shore,
A whirlwind down upon me bore,
And, ere I knew, my good ship sank,
And left me but a single plank,
Whereon mid sea and sky I hung,
And, drenched with water, thirsting clung.
Methought before my burning eyes
A noble Rock did sudden rise.
Kind breezes wafted me ashore ;
My ear forgot the storm-wind’s roar,
As up its sheltering bank I climbed. Celestial airs my footfalls chimed.
Lo ! on its summit grew a Tree
Where song-birds flitted gay and free ;
Beneath its shade I sank to rest,
With heavenly rapture blessed.
Awaked, within that charmèd ground
A balm for every wound I found :
Here for the weary blossomed rest,
For all earth’s suffering strength-in-pain;
Here blazed bright honors for the best,
And for the poorest, heavenly gain ;
And here the longing heart was filled
With joy and peace ecstatic trilled
By nesting birds that music made
Within that Tree’s enchanted shade. Ah ! who, methought, would rather be
On storm-drenched plank on life’s gray sea
Than, far above the waves of time,
Upon the Christ-Rock gladly climb,
And rest beneath the Singing Tree
Of Heavenly Love’s felicity?

There are many other pieces which are like hymns — or rather perhaps what hymns should be — in their religious fervor and earnestness of feeling. It is the fervor of one who through sorrow has found faith, who has believed and seen, — seen, possibly, with a little too much detail for poetic purposes, but with unmistakable insight and conviction. It is a little curious that the verses fitted to the composition known as Consolation are not the most striking of the collection, for the key-note of the whole is consolation and joy in consolation, a spirit of helpfulness and wide sympathy, the exercise of a fancy which lends itself to glad or to despondent themes, moving in many directions and with varying motions, but always under a guiding sense of serenity and trust.