Portrait of a Barmaid - (2009)
for medium or high voice and piano
Metallic waves of people jar
Through crackling green toward the bar
Where on the tables chattering-white
The sharp drinks quarrel with the
Those coloured muslin blinds the smiles,
faces in their wiles —
Sometimes they splash like water (you
Yourself reflected in their hue).
The conversation loud and bright
Seems spinal bars of shunting light
In firework-spurting greenery.
O complicate machinery
For building Babel, iron crane
hair, that blue-ribbed mane
In noise and murder like the sea
Without its mutability!
Outside the bar where jangling heat
out of tune and off the beat —
A concertina's glycerin
and mirrors in the green
Your soul: pure glucose edged with hints
Of tentative and half-soiled tints.
[ 5 pages, circa 3' 10" ]
The text is drawn from A Miscellany of Poetry, 1919, ed. W. Kean
Seymour. It is eleven couplets, divided at the halfway point in the sixth
couplet by the end of one sentence, and the beginning of another, making a
fulcrum between the eleven couplets at the exact center. It is said that
"Sitwell's satiric poetry contradicted the bucolic, Georgian poetry of the
day." Certainly this odd portrait in verse reveals a less than bucolic image
of the barmaid and the bar itself, its patrons "metallic." The
characteristics which speak of the barmaid say she is sweet -- "pure
glucose" -- and yet compromised in a most assuredly non-bucolic manner --
being "edged with hints of tentative and half-soiled tints."
Sitwell's portrait is much like the portrait which Ezra Pound "painted,"
The girl in the tea shop, the portrait which Carl Sandburg created in
his "Red-Headed Restaurant Cashier" (set I have set as
Red-Headed Girl), as well as akin to the so-titled and collected
portraits of E. E. Cummings as found in his Tulips and Chimneys of
1923, & [AND] of 1925, and XLI Poems of 1925, some of which I
have set but which remain unavailable until they become in the public
For this half-soiled yet "pure glucose," I chose an utterly simple two-chord
gesture, the bass line alternating between tonic and dominant with the added
D-sharp to the F sharp minor scale. The slow tempo and rocking nature of the
6/8 time signature suggest in visual form as well as flowing two measure
long gestures the "waves" of people which populate the scene in which the
barmaid moves and works. It is her perspective, and not that of the people
which serve as backdrop for this portrait which continues its steady round.
The score for Portrait of a Barmaid 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.
Portrait of a Barmaid