Primer Lesson


Primer Lesson - (2009)    

Carl Sandburg

for medium voice and piano


Look out how you use proud words.
When you let proud words go, it is not easy to call them back.
They wear long boots, hard boots; they walk off proud; they can't hear you calling--
Look out how you use proud words.


[ 2 pages, circa 1' 35" ]

Carl Sandburg


The text is taken from Sandburg's 1922 collection, Slabs of the Sunburnt West.  A primer was the word used for beginning textbooks, though the word has fallen from fashion and general usage today. In many subjects and fields, a fine primer is the best grounding for an education while the trendy political movements in modern education seem to be so often predicated on something other than, as Coach John Wooden of UCLA's basketball program, "basics, basics, basics."


Given the oratory from all sides in recent months as regards not only the American elections, but also political corruption vehemently denied or explained away with "good excuses," and the financial crisis which one sees in many nations (and all stemming from government mismanagement to some degree, in my estimation; for a rhymed opinion, please see Fat, fat government), this brilliantly succinct text of Sandburg's reminds that all the promises, political hyperbole and exaggerations as well as all the falsehoods linger long and it is incredibly difficult to "call them back." [ 1 ]


As to government itself, Sandburg's poem of this name is set here, Government.



The aggressive opening to this short setting features dissonances which take their time to resolve and relieve the clash between the chords. The vocal line begins as a repetition of pitches, much as one would note in 12 tone theory excepting for the far fewer notes including one "blue" minor third.



The small details with which Sandburg pictures these "proud words" are structured as a chorus to the preceding verse, though the length of this "chorus" is much truncated. A reprise of both the opening gesture and the more melodic moments ties the setting into its final cadence without any ritardando noted or recommended.



The score for Primer Lesson 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.


Primer Lesson




[ 1 ]   There is a similar story from European Judaism's many cultural stories in which the words of gossip are difficult to "call back."

          As the story goes, a woman deep into gossip came to the local rabbi to inquire if there was a way to absolve her guilt over causing some harm to friends with her gossip. The rabbi said yes, and it involved two actions. The first? Could she find a feather pillow, go to the top of a hill and empty it into the wind. Yes, she answered and went to do this, returning to learn of the second step. The rabbi then told her the second step was as easy to understand, though more difficult to do -- go out and pick up all the feathers and stuff them back into the pillow.

          This is how difficult it is, teaches Sandburg among many other wise men, to "call back" proud words.

          To this I add, false words, the gossip of the other fable and so many more things best left unsaid. In the modern world, it does not seem there are so much too many wrong opinions, as too many wrong opinions widely expressed.