Archive for December 2014
This post is contributed by John F. Russell, author and editor of The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson.
.Summary: In this post, John F. Russell confirms that the music of ‘God Save the Queen’ underlies Stevenson’s 1875 poem ‘Voluntary’, and argues why it is important to identify the poems of Stevenson that were written with reference to existing melodies.
Because Stevenson rarely indicates which of his poems are also lyrics, it is possible to read through entire volumes of his verse and remain innocent of its dual nature. Without an awareness of the music for which those lyrics were written much of their meaning and emotional context is lost.
In two letters from December of 1887, RLS expressed how he felt about writing for music:
I find this setting words a delightful operose task, which passes time like none other, in a kind of passionate occupied idleness. The difficulty of the job is most entrancing. [Booth-Mehew letter 1962]
All my spare time is spent in trying to set words to music. [Letter 1971]
The conjunction of three major events in July of Stevenson’s 25th year resulted in lyrics which expressed, intentionally or not, the essential meaning of all three.
The first of these was July 4th, 1875, the last celebration before the centennial of American independence in 1876. Stevenson’s attitude toward this can be inferred from his remarks on the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871 and George III in An Inland Voyage (1878),
More important for Francophile Stevenson was July 14. RLS must have thoroughly savored this anniversary of the French Revolution and freedom from monarchy because it was the same day he passed the Scottish Bar exam. From then on he was liberated from the University and within a few months was completely free even from the charade of practicing law.
He celebrated that freedom in these lyrics:
The editor tells us it was written in July at Swanston, and it appears among verses from 1875 in Poems Hitherto Unpublished (1916). More than “a poem of quiet and of peace,” it is a celebration of freedom and independence by a volunteer soldier in a different kind of war. We know this because the editor says in the last sentence of his comments that Stevenson “used the metre of the National Hymn.”
Reading the first stanza of the poem is enough to identify the music as God Save the Queen, the British national anthem, or America, the same tune with different lyrics by Samuel Francis Smith (1808-1895). Smith’s lyrics read,
My country tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died!
Land of the Pilgrim’s pride!
From every mountain side,
Let freedom ring!
My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love.
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture fills
Like that above.
Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom’s song.
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.
Our father’s God to, Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!
Those lyrics share with Voluntary themes of love of nature, music and freedom, but the British National Anthem as it was sung in the 19th century makes no mention of them:
Not only is the text of America more relevant than God Save the Queen to RLS’s poem, but it uses the same syllabification, rhythm and rhyme scheme throughout, while the British version is less consistent.
Voluntary and America both strictly observe the rhyme scheme AABCCCB, and Voluntary follows the same rhythmic pattern as America exactly except for an extra syllable in the word “toward” in the second stanza.
As a noun the word “voluntary” has so many meanings that it is hard to know which was intended. “Free will” is the most appropriate general term. More narrowly, a voluntary is a musical prelude preceding a church service, and the poem itself is a prelude to Stevenson’s life as a professional writer. It might also be understood in an even narrower musical sense as an extemporaneous (but in this case verbal) accompaniment to an already existing piece of music, America. “Volunteer soldier” is similarly an apt interpretation, and the richness of meaning may be the reason RLS chose the title.
Those who are moved to stand whenever they hear a band strike up God Save the Queen or America will be disappointed to hear Stevenson’s peaceful lyrics applied to that stirring melody, since it is difficult to divorce it from its patriotic context. For this reason Stevenson’s simple, personal declaration of independence has additional significance.
Voluntary is the only verse in the two books of Hitherto Unpublished Poems where the editor has actually identified the music to which it was written. Even when Stevenson gives him adequate information to make an identification, as in the case of Home from the Daisied Meadows (to Beethoven), Air de Diabelli and others, he merely notes some relationship to music. The editor identified the tune for Voluntary this one and only time probably because Stevenson actually named the melody in a note on the manuscript.
What would have been lost if “the national hymn” had not been mentioned? Reading just the first two stanzas as if we were ignorant of the music gives some idea.
Here in the quiet eve
My thankful eyes receive
The quiet light.
I see the trees stand fair
Against the faded air,
And star by star prepare
The perfect night.
And in my bosom, lo!
Content and quiet grow
Toward perfect peace.
And now when day is done,
Brief day of wind and sun,
The pure stars, one by one,
Their troop increase.
Without the music, we read too fast. The words no longer receive mostly equal weight, the articles and prepositions are rushed and the leisurely, noble walking pace of the poem is lost. The triple rhymes fall too quickly and heavily on the ear, and the three repetitions of the word “and” seem awkward. It is a poem that is meant to be sung, and when it is, what seem to be artistic errors either pass unnoticed or in fact enhance the music.
Without knowing the melody, we miss Stevenson’s irony in setting a grandiose, bellicose national anthem, normally blared out by a brass band and sung by hundreds or thousands of people, to a poem whose first sentence begins, “Here in the quiet eve.” We miss understanding that his new freedom is so important to him that he magnifies it to a national scale, but leaves out all mention of nationality, King, Queen or God. We miss knowing that his idea of freedom has nothing to do with war or glory or exaltation of leaders. It is instead the freedom simply not to be an engineer or a lawyer, but to be himself.
If it is possible for an editor to assemble entire volumes of poems without making essential references to the music that underlies them, how many among Stevenson’s thousands of verses remain only half understood and their complete significance still unsuspected?