John Milton (1608-1674) was an English poet and civil servant. He published his first collection of poetry in 1646, and in 1649 was appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues, in which capacity he served as Oliver Cromwell’s chief propagandist for ten years. However, Milton suffered from glaucoma, and by 1652 he was completely blind. In this sonnet he reflects on his blindness:
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Milton was wrong when he described his “Talent … lodged within [him] useless”; in spite of his blindness, he wrote Paradise Lost (a 10,000+ line epic poem) by committing verses to memory until someone was available for him to dictate to. All the same, this sonnet has surfaced quite often in my mind lately. Society places great emphasis on “making an impact”: every person I’ve met recently dreams of being influential, every college I’ve received mail from claims to empower students to change the world. But if every person in the world tried to change the world, how much of the world would be left to change? Society does not require everyone to contribute on a large scale; those who “only stand and wait” are essential as well. It’s become unfashionable to answer “what do you want to do when you grow up” with a desire to settle down somewhere quiet and plod along paying taxes. Yet all work is as meaningful as we choose to perceive it. As Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” Our lives are nothing more or less than what we make of them, and there are billions who find contentment in obscurity.
Pity me not because the light of day
At close of day no longer walks the sky;
Pity me not for beauties passed away
From field and thicket as the year goes by;
Pity me not the waning of the moon,
Nor that the ebbing tide goes out to sea,
Nor that a man’s desire is hushed so soon,
And you no longer look with love on me.
This have I known always. Love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails,
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales:
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.
This sonnet comes from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s anthology The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems (1923). The first six lines describe natural, recurring processes; in the seventh and eighth lines, Millay compares these processes to the fading of love. Thus, she expresses the impermanence of love: love’s fading is as inevitable as “the waning of the moon” or “the ebbing tide [that] goes out to sea.” Yet in spite of all this, the speaker cannot emotionally accept the transient nature of love and suffers for it – “the heart is slow to learn / What the swift mind beholds at every turn.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was an American poet and playwright. She was known for her mastery of the sonnet form, as well as her exploration of feminism and sexuality, which sometimes resulted in controversy over her works. Millay was openly bisexual and was known to her friends as “Vincent.” She died aged 58 after falling down a flight of stairs and suffering a heart attack. She was considered one of the greatest poets of her time; Thomas Hardy once said of her, “America has two great attractions: the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay.”
John Rutter’s Five Meditations for Orchestra was published in 2003. Each movement is an orchestral adaptation of a choral work previously composed by Rutter; Candlelight, the third movement, is an adaptation of his 1984 Christmas carol of the same name. It is representative of Rutter’s typical style – pleasant and melodious but conservative.
John Rutter (b. 1945) is a British composer and conductor known primarily for his liturgical choral works. He studied at Cambridge University, where he served as director of music at Clare College from 1975 to 1979. He founded the Cambridge Singers in 1981. He often releases works under his own label, Collegium Records, which he launched because he was dissatisfied with the terms offered in contracts from established labels.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) is based in London. It was founded in 1946 by the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Beecham had previously founded the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1932, but when he returned after leaving England in World War II the orchestra had become self-governed and no longer gave him as much control. Determined to found another orchestra, Beecham received the right to give the new ensemble its current name from the Royal Philharmonic Society, which his wealth had kept alive during World War I. The RPO is currently directed by Charles Dutoit.
Piece information: Candlelight from Five Meditations for Orchestra (John Rutter) – performed by John Rutter with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
The Concierto de Aranjuez, composed in 1939, is inspired by and named after the gardens at the Palacio Real de Aranjuez. Its success established Rodrigo as one of the major Spanish composers of the century. Later on, Rodrigo stated that the piece was composed as a response to his wife’s miscarriage.
Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999) was born in Valencia, Spain. At the age of 3 he lost most of his vision due to diphtheria, and later on in his life he composed in Braille. He was given many awards for his compositions, and in 1991 he was given a title (Marquis of the Gardens of Aranjuez) by King Juan Carlos I. In 1999 Rodrigo died in Madrid.
Paco de Lucía (1947-2014) was a renowned flamenco guitarist. He was born in Algeciras, Spain; his father and one of his brothers were also flamenco guitarists. De Lucía helped establish New Flamenco, a style which combines the virtuosity of traditional flamenco guitar with other musical styles including jazz, salsa, Gyspy, and Latin. Until he performed the Concierto de Aranjuez, de Lucía had never mastered note reading, and locked himself away to study the score. De Lucía died aged 66 from a heart attack.
Piece information: Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez (Rodrigo) – performed by Paco de Lucía with the Orquestra de Cadaqués, directed by Edmon Colomer
This mournful piece was subtitled Les fleurs pâle de Souvenir (“the pale flowers of remembrance”). Lekeu wrote it in 1891 to commemorate the death of his teacher, César Franck, in 1890.
Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894) was a Belgian composer. He began composing at age 15, and by the time he died, aged 24, he had written around 50 works. His most notable teachers were César Franck and Vincent d’Indy. His ideas about melody were inspired by Wagner’s operas, which he heard during a trip to Bayreuth in 1889. Overall, a certain melancholy pervades his style: as he wrote, “Joy is a thousand times harder to paint than suffering.” However, his work contains progressive elements that influenced later avant-garde composers including Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud. He died from typhoid fever in 1894.
Piece information: Adagio pour quatuor d’orchestre (Lekeu) – performed by Pierre Bartholomée with the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège
The fandango is a lively dance originating in Spain in the 1700s. It is traditionally accompanied by guitar, castanets, and clapping. Fandangos are notated in triple meter, generally 3/8 or 3/4.
Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) was an Classical composer. He was born in Lucca, Italy. As a child he studied music in Rome and Vienna. In 1761 he went to Madrid, where he was employed as a court musician. He was dismissed from court for doubling a passage the king disliked rather than removing it. He stayed in Spain until the death of his patron in 1786, maturing separately from the major musical centers of Europe. Afterward, he took a position in the court of Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. By 1797 he had returned to Madrid, and in 1800 he was employed by Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon I’s brother and the French ambassador to Spain at the time.
Boccherini has been nicknamed “Haydn’s wife” because his chamber music is strongly influenced by that of Joseph Haydn. His music is also noted for its elegant galant style. As biographer Elisabeth Le Guin writes, Boccherini’s music exhibits “an astonishing repetitiveness, an affection for extended passages with fascinating textures but virtually no melodic line, an obsession with soft dynamics, a unique ear for sonority, and an unusually rich palette of introverted and mournful affects.”
Piece information: Fandango (Movement 4) from Guitar Quintet G. 448 in D Major (Boccherini) – performed by The Carmina Quartet with Rolf Lislevand (guitar) and Nina Corti (castanets)
A missa brevis (Latin for “short mass”) is a mass which is shorter than usual either because it is partial (only some of the texts are set to music) or concise (with less repetition and expansion). In a mass, the following texts are sung in order: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus et Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. The text (with translation) of the mass can be found here.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) was an Italian Renaissance composer. He was the most famous composer of the Roman School, a group of composers of sacred music in Rome in the 16th and 17th centuries who were famous for perfecting a beautifully clear style of polyphony. Palestrina was extremely prolific and his works include over 140 madrigals, 105 masses, 68 offertories and 300 motets. Johann Sebastian Bach was inspired by Palestrina’s style later on.
The Tallis Scholars is a British vocal ensemble specializing in a cappella sacred vocal music. It was awarded a Gramophone Award in 1987. Several of its recordings are considered definitive, most notably that of Allegri’s Miserere mei.
Piece information: Sanctus et Benedictus from Missa brevis (Palestrina) – performed by The Tallis Scholars