Program notes from the composer
When Leonard Cochran offered me the text of “Mountain Song,” he wrote that it was the result of an attempt to “imitate the kind of work sometimes found among the Elizabethans. . . and, by a natural progression, among the people who live in the Southern highlands of the United States.” He referred to it as a “literary” attempt to produce what he suspected “came about quite naturally in certain times and in certain places.” He went on to say that he wrote it “in hopes that it might be set to music” and that he would “rather see it put to music than published as a poem.” “Mountain Song” then began its existence as a kind of poesia per musica, for which there is a rich and honorable tradition that extends many centuries into the past.
Concerning the music I have tried to capture the disarming simplicity of Leonard Cochran’s text by choosing a scale which strongly suggests the almost-but-not-quite pentatonicism often found in American folk melodies and by employing a litany-like form in which each line begins similarly with a variant of the same opening motive but which continues thereafter quite differently in order to reflect the ever changing meaning of the text. However, unlike in litanies, where all lines tend to be the same, the lines of “Mountain Song” are constantly varied; indeed they appear almost to have been improvised. For all of its folk-like character in both text and music, “Mountain Song” is, in fact, a consciously conceived work of art invented by a poet and musician fully aware of what they were doing. Composed and published first as a setting for mixed chorus and piano, “Mountain Song” was later published also as a solo song with piano accompaniment.
“Mountain Song” is only one of a number of collaborations that began when I asked Leonard Cochran to provide a text to a vocal piece that I had already composed, the text for which I had long ago discarded. The result, “The Maid of Astolat,” is a technically brilliant achievement certainly, but it is also exceedingly beautiful poetry. The second example was the text for the hymn “O God Whose Voice.” Whatever can be said for the music I composed to set it, Leonard Cochran’s text is one of the most beautiful hymn texts I know. From my work with him I continue to draw the inescapable conclusion that good poets have the same “ears” as good musicians. Perhaps not so incidentally, Leonard Cochran was a Dominican priest and a member of the faculty at Providence College, where he taught, among other things, a course in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.