Between Two Worlds

Song Collection

Between Two Worlds is a composition by John Harbison which sets the poetry of American poet Robert Bly and the fifteenth century German mystic Jakob Böhme. The work is for voice, two pianos, and two cellos.

Date: 1991Composer: John HarbisonText: Robert Bly

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Composer's Note

In 1978 the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival approached me with an idea for a piece based on documents left behind by the three civil rights workers, Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, who were murdered early in the summer of 1964. One reason they asked me to do the piece was my participation in that Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964.

I declined, because I could not speak then, musically, for those events. Nevertheless, I have now written Between Two Worlds, which deals with other issues from that time that I feel are still unresolved in our consciousness.

We are informed that “the Vietnam Syndrome” is over, but for many of the veterans of that war, and for those who simply witnessed it from here at home, conflicts persist. I found that certain poems of Robert Bly that I read then were still haunting my memory. Finally, after many years they took the form of specific musical sounds, for an unusual group of instruments, and a voice whose witness is more empathetic, cathartic and “vocal” than it could be at the time.

Bly’s 1967 collection The Light Around the Body, with its interludes taken from the fifteenth century mystic Jacob Boehme, identifies a crucial dilemma, the reconciliation of outward action with radical inwardness. It is around this center that all the musical ideas of the piece collect.

Between Two Worlds was commissioned by a consortium of summer festivals: Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Ravinia and Saratoga, for performance in the summer of 1991. It was composed in December 1990 and January 1991 at Token Creek, Wisconsin.

–John Harbison


The two worlds
Hearing men shout at night on MacDougal Street
Hatred of men with black hair
The various acts of poverty and cruelty
As the Asian war begins
Counting the small-boned bodies
In praise of grief
A body not yet born
Looking at some flowers

Sheet Music

Between Two Worlds

Composer(s): John Harbison

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