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Music and Texts of  GARY BACHLUND

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Voices Under Milk Wood - (1989)

Dylan Thomas

Fifteen songs for medium high voice and piano


Dylan Thomas

Under Milk Wood, the radio play by Dylan Thomas, remains under copyright. The songs were composed as sketches towards a chamber opera intended for ten singers, and correspondence with the estate through the International Copyright Bureau proved ineffective at that time at gaining non-exclusive rights to edit the full text into a shorter libretto. At the time of corresponding with the estate, from 1991-92, the songs and some additional sketches were already composed to test the premise, and given by the composer at a free public recital at UCLA in that year. In upcoming years, I will perhaps again pursue the estate and its executors with this purpose, as I continue to add sketches towards it through the years. However dealing with other than a principal artist over his work is daunting, for bureaucracies are usually less sensitive to artistic issues and temperaments, and more interested in asset value and the control thereof.    GB/2005


Summer 1991

Dylan Thomas' radio play, Under Milk Wood, entered this world a literary classic. Since his debut reading of it at the Y's Poetry center in New York City, the play has enjoyed repeated readings, airings, staged productions, audio recordings, and been filmed in a screenplay adaptation by Andrew Sinclair.

As with the body of Thomas' work, and in his own words, it is "prose [and poetry] with blood pressure."

In 1947, before Under Milk Wood, Thomas wrote in a letter to his parents about creating a libretto to a "full length grand opera for William Walton." (Ferris, Letters) That proposed collaboration never became real.

In 1953, Aldous Huxley, librettist for The Rake's Progress, suggested Thomas as librettist to Igor Stravinsky. An opera was to have been commissioned by Sarah Caldwell and the Opera Workshop of Boston University. In a letter to E. F. Bozman, Thomas foretold his upcoming success with the "Stravinsky libretto," as he called it. (Ferris, Letters) When the commission did not come, Stravinsky suggested they make "a start on their own" in Los Angeles. (Brinnin, Dylan Thomas in America) Thomas' death intervened.

Thomas' obvious interest in opera -- words in song -- as a medium for his work is easily documented in his own words. As to his ongoing plans for Under Milk Wood which were cut short by his death, composer and friend Daniel Jones wrote "the evening, like the morning, was to be 'all singing.'" (1974, "Second Preface" to Under Milk Wood) The quotes around "all singing" in Jones' Preface report Thomas' view, who was creating "ballads to be sung by some of the main characters."

Jones, Thomas' first literary executor and the original copyright trustee, supplied the songs for the play -- songs whose manuscripts are reproduced in New Directions Paperback editions. These song settings appear as a regular and integral part of recorded editions of the play -- one with Thomas as First Voice. As Jones tells us, more music was planned.

Under Milk Wood is words and words-with-music. Would Thomas have sanctioned the play's use as a libretto? I believe most certainly that he would.

We know certainly that more music was planned, but never added. And we know Thomas considered himself a potential librettist. Hence we may ask: was Under Milk Wood to be "all singing," as one of Thomas' longest and most trusted friends clearly writes? It is an obvious possibility.

My unpublished song cycle, Voices Under Milk Wood, based on the play text, was written in 1989 during my work with Charles Mackerras and the Welsh National Opera, in Cardiff and on tour throughout south Wales and England. While living the summer in Wales, I became an ardent student of Thomas' work. While musical settings of his poetry might seem a more likely focus for art songs, it was the prose and poetry -- with blood pressure -- of Under Milk Wood [as an opera setting] which drew me.

I visited Swansea which knew Thomas' boyhood, the Pembroke of Mr. Waldo's song, the boat house over the estuary at Laugharne and the hillside graveyard where he now lies under a white-washed cross. These places, with the words of the play, were soil in which my settings are rooted.
The fifteen songs drawn from the play were intended as a cycle, as an homage to Thomas. The musical materials are directly melodic, words in the foreground, to make the characters speak more clearly. 

Yet, the piece beckons, and, with Daniel Jones, I foresee it as "all singing."


Written for for medium high voice and piano, the fifteen settings portray different characters and, while standing alone for a single performer in a recital setting, would be distributed among the players in a music theater setting. Most are songs for the character known simply as First Voice, a narrator. They are:





First Voice

A Draper Mad With Love

Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard Widow

Bessie Bighead

Oh There's a Face!

Whispers on the Stairs

Mary Ann Sailors

Remember Last Night?

The Children's Song

Polly Garter (singing)

Knock Twice, Jack

A Puffball

Sunset Hymn

In Pembroke City

First Voice Last


The opening of the radio play begins with a narrator named First Voice. As narrators feature in the play itself, so they must in an operatic setting. For this the "moonless" time before dawn is conjured in the rocking movement of a gentle accompaniment, and the narrator begins to describe the scene. With so much wondrous text and descriptive words as are Thomas', it is imagined that an opera setting would involve only the simplest elements to "stage" Milk Wood and its environs.

In this short cycle , a draper mad with love, is followed by a thumbnail sketch of one "Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard Widow" who seems to completely cold and controlling that even her dead husbands must heed "she who must be obeyed." For this a waltz in B minor is chosen to set the text, in which the upper and lower neighbors are a musical pun to hint at the two dead husbands who she gathers to her side day and night.

After a small requiem for the lost love of the homely Bessie Bighead, an up tempo song brings on the uproarious and self-demeaning questions thrown into a mirror suggest that Lily is both in love and insecure, a truth of life which we should know well from some lesson in our own past.

After a snarling yet milquetoast of a husband brings tea to his wife in bed after his "Whispers on the Stairs," the narrator tells of the oldest of Milk Wood's inhabitants, Mary Ann Sailors. This simple setting relies for the most part on a six note "tone row," which in other web pages I have argued is as reasonable a pre-compositional strategy as the seemingly "de rigueur" twelve note row which became the "new" orthodoxy of the twentieth century, so proud of its escape from tonality that it fashioned a complete cage from which semiotically understood melody must be "liberated" by the new tonal resurgence among modern composers who are turning away from the "old" orthodoxy of the so-called Second Viennese school and its devotees.

This setting uses the row as defined in the first four notes of the melodic line, D, E, G and A and the inclusion in the accompaniment of B and C. Of course, by measure nine, even this tiny orthodoxy gives way to include the subtle flavor of the "new" B flat, which drives the harmony in common practice fashion to an F major harmony under the same recurrent four melodic notes.

"The Children's Song," also given to the narrator, involves seeming dissonances of parallel seconds and the chromatic bass line, and yet these features only serve to characterize the tonic C major as an apt setting for the child-like melody.

In time, perhaps the Thomas estate and International Copyright Bureau will come to see that these wondrous texts are most apt for a libretto, carefully redacted, and then Dylan Thomas' dream of an opera to "his" libretto will be finally realized. When last I corresponded with them, now fully fourteen years ago, they indicated that they were in discussion with some "major" composer whose name was not mentioned. Given today's absence of an opera based on "Under Milk Wood" as of 2005, it seems another has not solved the libretto and compositional concerns to make this marvelous work function on the operatic stage.

I shall continue quietly to add to my settings towards some future time for my estate, perhaps when the Thomas copyright and the estate's control over it expires, for arts administrators, attorneys and accountants are not creators of art and ultimately can only make financial decisions for an estate after an artist's death. As stated above, I am convinced that Dylan Thomas would have sanctioned a work such as I proposed and have composed to date. And in time, perhaps they -- his administrators -- shall too.