Southern Pacific - (1984)
duet for tenor and baritone and piano
Huntington sleeps in a house six feet long.
Huntington dreams of railroads he built and owned.
Huntington dreams of ten thousand men saying: Yes, sir.
Blithery sleeps in a house six feet long.
Blithery dreams of rails and ties he laid.
Blithery dreams of saying to Huntington: Yes, sir.
Blithery, sleep in houses six feet long.
Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) published Cornhuskers in 1918. The short poem above speaks to the ultimate reality of human existence, the equal end to which we all succumb. These eight lines show that poetry can capture an idea, a sentiment and a philosophy, all with a few choice words. The setting for tenor and baritone mirrors the two protagonists in Frost's vignette -- two dead still playing their roles.
The poem's stanzas are overlaid, such that each voice sings "his" part, one approximately matching the other in shape and form, offset only in the opening text which begins as if a canon. The gesture in the accompaniment could suggest the ringing of bells.
The voices converge for the phrase "yes, sir," and then restate the "sir" in a dissonance of minor seconds. This dream in an afterlife perhaps is not so sweet, after all, for as the setting ends, it is Blithery "atop" Huntington at a major second.
The score for Southern Pacific 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.