Archive for June 2014
This post is contributed by John F. Russell, author and editor of The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Song: ‘Dark Women’
Dark Women is a long poem in which Stevenson contrasts women of opposite hues, wonders at the shades of one particular woman’s nature and welcomes the consolation of her embrace.
Fanny is not mentioned by name in the verse, but in a letter to Colvin concerning the preparation of Songs of Travel (published in Scribner’s Magazine 75.iv, April 1924, p. 419), she says that in addition to the poem My Wife (”Trusty, dusky, vivid, true”), “There was another that Louis rather liked–I think it was called, ‘In praise of dark women’; what do you think of adding that? I only suggest the looking at it.”
Colvin chose instead to include in Songs of Travel only stanzas 2-3 of Dark Women:
Because of the poem’s personal nature Janet Adam Smith assumed that Colvin suppressed the remainder, which has since been published in varying six-stanza versions and by Lewis (2003) in an eight-stanza conflation of the various versions because no single manuscript represents the work in a clearly finished state.
In 1890 Stevenson wrote to the editor of Scribner’s Magazine concerning poems he wanted to publish under the titles Ballads and Songs of Travel.In a following letter he mentioned that many of them were written to music, and that he thought it would be a good idea to include the voice parts:
In addition to other items, Beinecke manuscripts 5865-9 contain four versions of a list of poems intended for Ballads and Songs of Travel.
The list headed Posthumous Verses (apparently intended for publication after his death) contains 48 titles divided into four sections: Vailima, Underwoods, Verses and Songs:
In the section “Songs,” number 43 has the title To You, Let Snow and Roses and is followed by a line count of 16 (which would seem to correspond to the version published in the Edinburgh Edition). It appears in the list together with titles such as Ditty, To an Air of Diabelli’s, To the Tune of Wandering Willie, and 16 others, 9 of which have been found to be associated with music and are listed in the index of the Music of Robert Louis Stevenson website.
Stevenson said on several occasions that he enjoyed the challenge of writing lyrics to music, and so it seems apparent that the reason To You, Let Snow and Roses appears in the section titled “Songs” rather than the other three sections is that it too was written to music.
A different (and clearly later) version of the list (B 6894) has 61 titles. Number 53 is Dark Women and has a line count of 24. RLS apparently considered To You, Let Snow and Roses complete enough to publish at the time but later expanded it to three stanzas and retitled it. Three varying six-stanza versions have been published (Strong 1899, Gosse 1908, Hellman 1925) and an eight-stanza (64-line) conflated version appears in Lewis’s Collected Poems (2003).
A song—with music
Stevenson’s musically inspired poems occasionally contain clues to the melody in the title, subtitle or body of the poem, but in this case the only clues are the rhythm and meaning of the verse. Identifying the tune for this particular work would be hopeless, except that many of the scores Stevenson acquired for his musical studies have been identified and most of his original manuscript musical compositions and transcriptions are available. The proper place to begin searching for music he might have used for a poem is in the scores he collected and the manuscript copies he made, and so it is not haystacks that need to be looked in for this particular needle but in “those great stacks of music,” as Lloyd Osbourne called them.
Out of Stevenson’s more than 140 manuscript transcriptions of music, only one fits the poem properly. He called it Mozart, but its actual title is Duettino from Clemenza di Tito, Act I, Scene 3. Although it is a duet, Stevenson generally copied only from the first part, simplifying some rhythms, changing a few notes, and shortening the whole by six bars.
A recording using the first stanza of Stevenson’s lyrics can be heard by clicking here. In the opera, Sesto and Annio sing these words:
Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso, / Amico mio fedel;
E ognor per me lo stesso / Ti serbi amico il ciel.
Ah, let me embrace you dearly, / My faithful friend,
And may heaven ever keep / Your friendship constant for me.
The texts of the opera and poem share the theme of friendship, and Stevenson even seems slightly surprised that it is “her of duskier lustre whose favour still I wear.” Although To You, Let Snow and Roses is a song for one voice, its two stanzas comparing two kinds of women produce a duet of its own kind. That the poem fits so well with the opera melody and that the two works share a similar theme should be proof enough that Mozart’s music inspired the poem; however some small details in Stevenson’s transcription add further evidence.
RLS has written the expression mark “dolce” (sweetly) in the middle of the second line. The two bars of music that follow are alterations by Stevenson of Mozart. At this point in the opera the two voices sing separately and echo each other:
If Stevenson had chosen to copy Mozart’s music exactly, he would have written the following, which is a compilation of the two voices:
However, this particular line of the poem has too few syllables for too many notes, so he leaves some out and changes others. The result is a sweeter version of the melody which the lyrics implicitly dedicate to Fanny: “For her of duskier lustre.”Other changes RLS made in Mozart to accommodate his lyrics can be found in the last three bars of the song. To set the words “The rose be in her hair,” he added extra notes specifically for the words “be” and “her.” Because the first stanza of his lyrics finishes at this point, he ends his song and discards the remaining six bars of Mozart’s music:
In To You, Let Snow and Roses Stevenson fused the two melodies of the Duettino into one air on the themes of friendship and color, but later he seemed to realize that by leaving out the operatic image of the embrace, he expressed only half the meaning he intended. Long after the music is silent, verse after searching verse follows in praise of a multitude of shades and colors, but the poem can only end when once again Lou finally embraces Fanny.
The Duettino reads,
Ah, let me embrace you dearly,
my faithful friend,
and may heaven ever keep
your friendship constant for me
The last stanza of Dark Women reads:
The defeats and the successes,
The strife, the race, the goal,
And the touch of a dusky woman
Was fairly worth the whole.
And sun and moon and morning,
With glory I recall,
But the clasp of a dusky woman
Outweighed them one and all.
John F. Russell