Original program note from the composer
“Composed in 2004 at the request of baritone Wolfgang Holzmair and commissioned by Eleanor Eisenmenger, A Timeless Procession receives its belated premiere tonight. Holzmair plans to perform the European premiere, and in the meantime, has commissioned me for another piece, this time for baritone and cello.
“I discovered the poetry of Rosemary Thomas (1901-1961) quite by chance at a library book sale in the late 1980’s. Although she was championed late in life by such illustrious poetry figures as Archibald MacLeish and Mark Van Doren, she died in obscurity. Thomas was a lyrical, imaginative, spiritual-minded poet whose work simply begged me to set it to music. Her poem, “The Elephants Pass Carnegie Hall,” begins with an image, maybe real, maybe surreal, of circus elephants parading by Carnegie Hall, and ends with a sharp, mystical left turn into the prehistoric times of their ancestors. My piece views the poem through the lens of time—beginning with a primordial awakening, progressing into real time (the parade of elephants), and then through slow motion, frozen time, a return to real time (but with a surreal overlay of baritone falsetto), and finally, in the canonic last section, time past.”
The Elephants Pass Carnegie Hall
by Rosemary Thomas
It was all coincidence – we would have missed them
had we stopped afterwards to speak to the musicians.
There, waiting by the curb for a taxi, we heard
like a rustle of taffeta (but coming towards us)
the uncanny quash-squash, quash-squash of unshod
animal feet, huge square-toed mastodon feet
shuffling down the street as if it were
the most familiar path. The great grey
epidermis of the night rolled back to let pass
a herd of thirty elephants, mounted by guards
with swinging lanterns, the last guard flashing his
off and on, off and on like some revolving light
atop a cliff of elephant, so high he sat
above the last lost inappropriate wisp of tail.
Through a sea of fog their eyes showed white,
and the great wise domes of their heads swinging
the plantain ears, rolled slowly from side to side,
each string-tail tied to the trunk in front,
their huge diminishing buttocks and the hundred
hugger-mugger feet in an antique procession
possessing its own quietness, affable, warm,
and ancient as it swallowed the sluggard night.
“Where are you going? Where are you going?”
shouted the crowd at the circus elephants.
“Boston!” the guards shouted back, and on
the hazard wind, only the “ton” came clear –
a ton of elephants, ten tons of elephant
funneling down West 57th Street.
Across from darkened Carnegie, the drug-store
flashed cheap earrings, rubbers, compacts,
combs, nail-files – and beyond, we heard
a dissonance of horns that tracked the timeless
tread of the shoeless tribe. The impatient drivers
could not see another fog-banked night when,
in the mud-rolling African swamps,
the herd, smelling of musk, the elders
nudging their young, trumpeted the dark,
and the thunder-colored elephants mated
with the dark of the forest.