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James Kennerley: Arise, my love

We thought we’d start where we left off at the beginning of the week and present a song that celebrates partnership and love. It’s been a fun journey for us and I hope that it has been as entertaining to read as it has been for us to write! Emily and I were married in July 2016 and, both being musicians, we wanted to ensure that our guests were suitably entertained during the ceremony. I started working on some brass arrangements for the hymns, and said to Emily that I’d like to write a song for her. The deal was that Emily would choose the text and I’d write the music: the perfect partnership, yes? Well, you would have thought so…

As the date closed in and no piece was yet composed, we both had increasingly contrasted views of the situation in hand. From Emily’s standpoint she had done her part and provided me with dozens of possible texts. I was just being fussy and difficult in not selecting any of them. From my end, none of them were quite right. A trite love song, a terse quotation from the Bible, a poem of endless length that didn’t really go anywhere. It reminded me of the process that composers have of starting out on a journey. There is an abundance of reticence, procrastination, even, that comes at the start of any epic voyage of creativity and time. There’s also a great deal of excitement and anticipation. But you also want to make sure that you’re setting out on the right path.

Anyway, time was pressing on and I ended up selecting two texts. One is a classic wedding text, taken from שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים‎, known in English as the Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs. It’s an explicit celebration of love, often interpreted in the Jewish tradition as an allegory of the love of God for Israel, and in the Christian faith as a symbol of Jesus and his bride, the Church:

“My beloved spake, and said unto me, rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vine with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

So many composers have set this text or portions of it, so I wanted to match it with something more unusual. One of the poems Emily had selected was by a nineteenth-century journalist and author, Sir Edwin Arnold (1832–1904). Entitled “Destiny”, it spoke to me in all kinds of ways that us composers enjoy: it had contrast, lots of potential for colorful text setting, and a neat, attractive rhyming scheme:

“Somewhere there waiteth in this world of ours / for one lone soul, another lonely soul – Each chasing each through all the weary hours, / And meeting strangely at one sudden goal; / Then blend they – like green leaves with golden flowers, / Into one beautiful and perfect whole – / And life’s long night is ended, / and the way Lies open onward to eternal day.”

I knew that we had a choir of our amazing singer friends, and a superb conductor, Donald Meineke, and fantastic organist, Ben Sheen. We would also have very little rehearsal time—weddings are supposed to be about fun, not work, right?—so I wanted to write something that was singable and pleasing to the ear, but also something that wouldn’t function as some kind of pretty wallpaper. The opening section echoes the “flowers appearing” as mentioned in the Song of Solomon, but colored by the minor-mode inflections suggested by the poem’s opening lines. Ben is an amazing organist, so I thought I’d showcase his talents and write an exuberant toccata leading to the poem’s uplifting conclusion, “and the way Lies open onward to eternal day.” The piece is rounded out by a return of the opening material, now in the major mode, reflecting the happiness and contentment of the passing winter and the endless bliss of love.

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