Election Day - text of Ambrose Bierce


Election Day - (2009)    

Ambrose Bierce

for medium voice and piano


Despots effete upon tottering thrones
Unsteadily poised upon dead men's bones,
Walk up! walk up! the circus is free,
And this wonderful spectacle you shall see:
Millions of voters who mostly are fools--
Demagogues' dupes and candidates' tools,
Armies of uniformed mountebanks,
And braying disciples of brainless cranks.
Many a week they've bellowed like beeves,
Bitterly blackguarding, lying like thieves,
Libeling freely the quick and the dead
And painting the New Jerusalem red.
Tyrants monarchical--emperors, kings,
Princes and nobles and all such things--
Noblemen, gentlemen, step this way:
There's nothing, the Devil excepted, to pay,
And the freaks and curios here to be seen
Are very uncommonly grand and serene.

No more with vivacity they debate,
Nor cheerfully crack the illogical pate;
No longer, the dull understanding to aid,
The stomach accepts the instructive blade,
Nor the stubborn heart learns what is what
From a revelation of rabbit-shot;
And vilification's flames--behold!
Burn with a bickering faint and cold.

Magnificent spectacle!--every tongue
Suddenly civil that yesterday rung
(Like a clapper beating a brazen bell)
Each fair reputation's eternal knell;
Hands no longer delivering blows,
And noses, for counting, arrayed in rows.

Walk up, gentlemen--nothing to pay--
The Devil goes back to Hell to-day.

[ 7 pages, circa 3' 50" ]

Ambrose Bierce


The text is from Bierce's Shapes of Clay (1903), in which a number of texts draw cynical portraits of politics and politicians. Published over a century ago and as I have often observed, the rhetoric of politics seems to promise various kinds of hope and change, and yet that which was worthy of acerbic skepticism in 1903 is more than worthy of the same and heightened skepticism today, the world's governments generally in massive debt compared to 1903. Defense through offence is the name of much politics in which one's party -- quite like team sports -- receives accolades and offences are easily excused, while the other side receives jeers and the smallest infraction is built into a public-relations fed scandal of epic proportions. Bierce reminds us that all sides will ultimately offer "the devil to pay." Thus Bierce mixes "magnificent spectacle" with "tyrants," characterizing the political cheerleaders as "braying disciples." I think that an apt description. 


For the loyal devotee of any political party, each of you only need ruminate on your own opinions of the "other" party which you oppose to realize how apt Bierce's remarks seem towards it and its "braying disciples;" but realize that the "other" party thinks of you quite in the same way.



The opening gesture is an stripped and simplified elongation of that kind of gesture which circus bands and political marches often open. The verse features a walking bass of tenths underpinning a single counterpoint to the vocal line. The score is under-marked in terms of dynamics, but performers are encouraged to find an ebb and flow to them within the popular style on which this setting is based.



The first stanzas in this poem are treated in an A-A form with the shift to the subdominant as the answering B section, as below.



After a reprise of the A section, there comes a new section of bridge materials, a more agitated C in this extended form of sixteenth note chords, before a return to the final A section.



The final reprise of the A section brings Bierce's conclusion to an end, as he mentions the "Devil" which rears its head in each and every electoral season of promises and often emotionally appealing but logically vacuous rhetoric. Therefore "Hell today" is followed by the poem's title, for "hell" is in Bierce's and my opinion also "election day." 



The score for Election Day 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.


Election Day