Especially when compared to the author’s great tragedies, William Shakespeare’s sonnets always appeared to me to be the runts of the Bard’s poetic litter. I’d read the line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and my mind would draw up images of butterflies and roses and tacky Hallmark cards, not deep thoughts on the struggles of human experience. It turned out I was not alone in that thought either: In the two centuries after Shakespeare’s death, the sonnets had little lasting impact on English poetry, as great poets like Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope looked to Milton as the pinnacle of English sonneteering.
Yet when I first read these poems closely, and really got to know their ins and outs, they turned from sweet, fourteen-line morsels to something much darker and more mysterious. For instance, most of the sonnets center on the relationship between the poems’ speaker and a male “fair youth.” Is their relationship romantic and sensual? Just platonic? Not quite either? Does it matter? Once I followed the sonnets down the rabbit hole, I discovered that they lead to endless questions rather than simple answers.
In a course on Shakespeare that I took in college, my professor encouraged us to dig into the sonnets by trying to write an analysis of a favorite one using only the words in that sonnet. I chose Sonnet 73, a meditation on lost youth.¹ By playing with and rearranging the words from this poem, I got a new insight into how it worked. No longer was I just struck with the asymmetrical beauty of lines like, “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.” Instead, I noticed just how obsessed the speaker is with explaining his or her station in metaphor. As opposed to a person aging gracefully and imparting wisdom on a young friend, the speaker appears extremely frightened of the future, using every bit of poetic skill to express what he or she is feeling. Even the final couplet directed toward the fair youth feels more like a passive-aggressive command than a statement of fact.
In this piece, I am hoping to convey both the ambiguities of the sonnet itself and the sense of discovery one gets when digging deeply into such a rich piece of literature. The poem itself is set as a chorale. Like a love sonnet, a chorale has a very strong archetypal emotional connotation—we immediately associate it with church services and solemn events. But just as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 subverts our concept of what a sonnet is meant to do, my hope is that the mysterious oddities of this chorale push against your own sense of what a chorale is supposed to evoke. After the chorale, the singers pull the sonnet apart, creating a new texture based on single words from the poem. At the same time, a reader puts the sonnet back together in a new way, using that old assignment from college to attempt to explain the poem in Shakespeare’s language. Just as it takes more than one reading to really understand a poem, it takes more than one musical setting to tease out the sonic possibilities of a poem’s words.
That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
This piece was premiered by the San Francisco Choral Artists on June 8, 2014, in Palo Alto, California. It was subsequently performed on June 14 in San Francisco, and June 15 in Oakland. It won second prize in the San Francisco Choral Artists’ annual “New Voices Project” call for scores.
1. This may have been a symptom of the classic senior year “what’s next” ennui.