Clarke Minus One (Plus One)

Much of a 2019 recital commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Clarke’s death popped up on YouTube the other day, and it’s just as revelatory as it is improbable. A production of National Taiwan University’s Center for the Arts, the recital presented violist Mei-Chun Chen and pianist Hsin-I Huang in Chen’s transcriptions of three of Clarke’s most powerful and characteristic songs, along with deeply insightful performances of Morpheus and the Sonata. (More about the latter in a forthcoming post.)

Sir Charles Stanford, Clarke’s composition-teacher, steered students away from songs until they had acquired firm command of instrumental writing, lest they rely too heavily on “the crutches of suggestive poetry” and fail to learn that song-writing “demands a power, which is perhaps the hardest of all to acquire, of suggesting large and comprehensive ideas in a confined and economical space.” Something similar can happen on the receiving end: hearing flawless songs in fine performances can be so transporting that we miss the “large and comprehensive ideas” that give them their strength and energy. And this is where Chen’s transcriptions are so revealing.

Stripped of words and presented as “absolute music,” Clarke’s Tiger, Tiger reveals an elegance of form and logic every bit as relentless as the eponymous beast itself, and for that reason it becomes even more terrifying:

[Beginning at 2:07] Tiger, tiger, burning bright / In the forest of the night: / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry? ¶ In what distant deeps or skies / Burnt the fire of thine eyes? / On what wings dare he aspire? / What the hand dare seize the fire? ¶ And what shoulder and what art, / Could twist the sinews of thy heart? / And when thy heart began to beat, / What dread hand? & what dread feet? ¶ What the hammer? what the chain, / In what furnace was thy brain? / What the anvil? what dread grasp, / Dare its deadly terrors clasp! ¶ When the stars threw down their spears / And water’d heaven with their tears: / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee? ¶ Tiger Tiger burning bright, / In the forests of the night: / What immortal hand or eye, / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? (William Blake)

By contrast, The Cherry-Blossom Wand, with its feather-light text, can seem like a charming bauble that goes by in a flash. Without the words, however, its underlying sobriety instantly comes to the fore, and it begins to feel like a very large idea indeed:

I will pluck from my tree a cherry-blossom wand, / And carry it in my merciless hand, / So I will drive you, so bewitch your eyes, / With a beautiful thing that can never grow wise. ¶ Light are the petals that fall from the bough, / And lighter the love that I offer you now; / In a spring day shall the tale be told / Of the beautiful things that will never grow old. ¶ The blossoms shall fall in the night wind,/ And I will leave you so, to be kind: / Eternal in beauty, are short-lived flowers, /Eternal in beauty, these exquisite hours. ¶ I will pluck from my tree a cherry-blossom wand, / And carry it in my merciless hand, / So I will drive you, so bewitch your eyes, / With a beautiful thing that shall never grow wise. (Anna Wickham)

But it’s The Donkey—one of Clarke’s most nakedly theatrical songs—that really drives the point home:

When fishes flew and forests walked / And figs grew upon thorn, / Some moment when the moon was blood / Then surely I was born. ¶ With monstrous head and sickening cry / And ears like errant wings, / The devil’s walking parody / On all four-footed things. ¶ The tattered outlaw of the earth, / Of ancient crooked will; / Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb, / I keep my secret still. ¶ Fools! For I also had my hour; / One far fierce hour and sweet: / There was a shout about my ears, / And palms before my feet. (G.K. Chesterton)

With the declamatory vocal line transferred to the viola, it is instantly apparent that the “shout” that ushers Jesus into Jerusalem is nothing less than the opening salvo of the Sonata, note for note, at pitch. So much for the claim that Clarke tried to hide her light under a bushel, or the corollary notion that her songs were lesser things, devoid of intellectual content, meant only for the parlor and her circle of friends!

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