A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, opera a cappella now available at Albany Records

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

O beautiful for pilgrim feet?

Most great contemporary songs have figured out that second and third verses are really important. But with old hymns and songs, they can become incomprehensible. Ellen Frankel and I are working on a kind of ecumenical hymn to be inserted in our opera, SLAYING THE DRAGON. We are working to make sure that the second and third verses do not degenerate. Take for example the second verse of this famous song which I was reminded of because my daughter is singing it in her children's choir.

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law! 

When was the last time you thought about a pilgrim's foot? How is something stern and impassioned at the same time? You picture a bunch of pilgrims doing some kind of stomping dance. And "Confirm thy soul in self-control?" Does that mean "Let's be repressed, it's for the best?" And the first four lines are such a long thought that they are incomprehensible when sung. 

By contrast, check out the words to Amazing Grace. Those lyrics make sense and tell a story.

1 comment:

  1. Michael, /America the Beautiful/ was not written as a hymn or song -- it was a poem composed by Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor. Not to be pedantic, but a pilgrim (not Pilgrim) is a wanderer, a person who journeys. When I read that stanza, I think of the westward migration which populated the Great Plains (and of course killed all the Native Americans). And she's making a point that Americans tend toward the impulsive and lawless (on the frontier), so God should help us strive toward the ethical life -- I don't think "self-control" has to do with personal repression. I mean, this was a woman who was writing this poem because she was dazzled by the scenery on a train trip to Colorado. Well, my point is, the words are not lyrics because this was meant to be read, not sung.