Music and Texts of Gary Bachlund



Life - (2009)  

James Weldon Johnson

for medium voice and piano


Out of the infinite sea of eternity
To climb, and for an instant stand
Upon an island speck of time.

From the impassible peace of the darkness
To wake, and blink at the garish light
Through one short hour of fretfulness.

[ 2 pages, circa 1' 35" ]

James Weldon Johnson


The text is drawn from Johnson's Fifty Years & Other Poems, The Cornhill Company, Boston, 1917. This collection contains poems in a variety of styles, from dialect to a sort of free verse, of which this is such an example. Not wholly free, the shape of the phrases, and the location of prepositions, conjunctions and infinitives makes for its subtle formality. This view of life, as with so many in poetry, reminds us yet again that not only is life brief and transitory but a challenge as well. For some it is challenge which becomes triumphant, while for others it is a challenge over which one triumphs.



The lyric adopts not only the text, but as with other settings I have done, the title as well. The first stanza structurally functions in the setting as an accompanied recitative-like arietta, while the second stanza becomes the aria to follow. Opening on a major-mínor C dominant seven, it slips a step immediately, and then another. While the verb states "climb" the pressing down of the vocal line suggests the arduousness of such climbing.



The second stanza is formally on A flat, though the static harmony adds the raised fourth to the chord structure in each verse, underpinning the "blue" notes of the vocal melody and accompaniment counterpoint. The setting ends with the opening word, "life," and then winks out in a single note.



The score is available as a free PDF download, though any major commercial performance or recording of the work is prohibited without prior arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic below for this piano-vocal score.