FOUR SONGS ON POEMS BY ELIZABETH BISHOP for soprano and chamber orchestra (1 flute, 1 oboe, 1 clarinet, 1 bassoon, 1 French horn, 1 harp, strings: 2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello, 1 double bass, or string orchestra) 2010. Commissioned by Suzie LeBlanc. 22 minutes. Score and parts available through PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.

Now available on disc:

Suzie LeBlanc, soprano
Elizabeth Bishop Players
Dinuk Wijeratne, conductor
CMC Centrediscs

Notes in English (by Christos Hatzis)

My relationship with Elizabeth Bishop started rather abruptly. I must confess that I was not familiar with her or her poetry before Suzie LeBlanc, the great Canadian soprano, asked me to set some of these poems to music for a Bishop centennial event with Symphony Nova Scotia in February 2011. I accepted the invitation without checking out the poetry first but, as I read the poems Suzie sent me, I realized that they would be a challenge to set to music. My philosophy about poetry turned into song is that, if the setting obscures more of the structure and meaning of the poem than it elucidates, the poem is best left alone. The music ought to serve the poem, not obscure it or appropriate it in any way. At first, Bishop's complex and often non-periodic rhythms and occasionally inscrutable meanings show a brilliant intellect at work that needs no assistance from a composer. At other times, however, her disciplined verse allows glimpses of lyrical abandon overtly or implicitly "in need of music." Elizabeth Bishop loved music and refers to it often in her work: classical, jazz, popular—hers was an eclectic but uncompromising ear. My starting point in the setting of these four poems was a decision to visit musical worlds that Bishop might have experienced during her lifetime but only if these worlds could be argued for by the poetry itself. My quest was to discover the song inside each poem by searching for symmetries behind the convoluted asymmetries of each poem's surface: a rhythm implied by punctuation, a change of mode implied by a peculiar indentation in the text, a sequence of words which are reminiscent of lyrics of a popular music genre or a sound image in the text (like the "whistles from a factory" in Anaphora) which can convincingly be paired with a particular genre of music.

In I am In Need of Music, the first song, an appropriately romantic (almost "new-agey") treatment of the text gives way to music reminiscent of big band era pop songs, back to lyricism in "there is a magic made by melody" and eventually to musical impressionism as the music attempts to painterly depict the "subaqueous stillness of the sea." Set in C major, the music is either tonally still or modulates methodically before it settles on the supertonic key of D major for the "big band" segment of the song returning to C major for its conclusion. The supertonic acts as a strange attractor in the second song too, Insomnia (She is a Daytime Sleeper.) This poem's peculiar structure has the first four lines of the first two six-line stanzas match in rhyme and rhythm implying pop lyrics, while this predictable symmetry is offset by the two remaining lines in each stanza which do not rhyme. Borrowing from folk/pop music idioms of the 1960's (the Beetles were particularly in my mind as I was writing this song), the two "free" lines end suspended on the supertonic and are answered by an instrumental line in the tonic which could be sung to the words "she is a daytime sleeper" (the listener is invited to imagine these lyrics as s/he hears this repeated instrumental line.) Bishop's extravagant wit in this poem, particularly the closing and surprising "and you love me," is driven home musically, resulting in a strophic pop song which deceptively appears to be appropriating the poem. The fact is that, in spite of its "catchiness," the song follows the semantics of the poem closely and even engages in word painting by associating the "inverted world" of the third stanza with eighth-note displacements of the beat, precipitously toying with the listener's rhythmic perception of strong and weak beats. The Unbeliever, the third poem, is a surrealist depiction of an anxiety dream. The music is a waltz, a cross between the two Strausses (Richard and Johann), constantly modulating from the opening C major and hardly ever staying in any single key for more than a few seconds. The rampant chromaticism and gesturing makes this song feel like a tightrope act, plunging into the depths at the very end and evaporating upwards along the C overtone series. It is by far the most virtuosic of the four songs for both the soprano and the orchestra. After completing this song, I had originally considered the composition finished and send the score to the Suzy and the SNS.

After repeated listening, however, the song cycle felt incomplete. I asked the commissioner for permission to add one more song, a setting of the poem Anaphora, and my request was graciously granted. Anaphora is a remarkable poem. Inscrutable in its deeper meaning, it introduced itself to me as a meditation on the cosmic advent and fall of Adam followed by his transformation into a Christ-like figure, redeeming the world through a "fiery event" in a continuing process of "endless assent." The opening, a lyrical unlocking of our inner sanctum using sound and music as a key, instantly suggested a strophic song hidden inside the asymmetry of this poem's lines and rhythms. Of the four poems, my original goal of discovering the song inside the poem was best realized in Anaphora. The title itself gave me the hint as to where this song was hiding. Anaphora (Gr. "ana-phora") literally means Report. Etymologically, "re-port" means to re-carry, re-introduce. It is a cryptic allusion to Bishop's extensive repetition of words and phrases in this poem. By resorting to some additional repetitions of key words, I managed to discover a strophic structure, which made possible not only this Broadway-like song but also an unlikely (I would even say impossible) semantic correspondence between the important moments of this convoluted poem and the strophic song structure itself. The song literally wrote itself and was completed in record time. It is in the key of D major, the supertonic of the original C major key of the first two movements, which, like this song, had been yearning to be born and come into prominence from the very beginning. At the opening of the second stanza there is a harmonic and melodic allusion to the first song of the cycle at the occurrence of the words "more slowly falling into sight." It is the only attempt in the entire cycle to melodically cross-reference these very different songs, even though their evolution from one to the next feels strangely natural and belies their unrelatedness on the surface. They are like four strangers connected by some inexplicable ties that do not stem directly from their own individual histories and natures, thus allowing for both tension and cohesion in the structure.

Four Song on Poems by Elizabeth Bishop is dedicated to Suzie LeBlanc, Symphony Nova Scotia and its conductor Bernhard Gueller.

(Tranlation in French by Véronique Robert. Courtesy of CMC Centrediscs.)

Ma relation avec Elizabeth Bishop a commencé de manière plutôt abrupte. Je dois confesser que je ne la connaissais pas, non plus que sa poésie, avant que Suzie LeBlanc, la grande soprano canadienne, me demande de mettre en musique quelques-uns de ces poèmes pour un événement avec Symphony Nova Scotia célébrant le centenaire de Bishop en février 2011. J’ai accepté l’invitation sans lire les poèmes mais, lorsque j’ai lu ceux que Suzie m’a envoyés, je me suis rendu compte que les mettre en musique poserait un sérieux défi. Ma philosophie concernant la transformation de la poésie en mélodie est que, si la musique obscurcit la structure et le sens du poème plus qu’elle ne les éclaire, mieux vaut s’abstenir. La musique devrait servir le poème, et non pas l’obscurcir ou se l’approprier d’aucune façon. Au début, les rythmes complexes et souvent non périodiques de Bishop jumelés à des significations parfois impénétrables montrent à l’œuvre un intellect brillant qui n’a nul besoin de l’aide d’un compositeur. Toutefois, à d’autres moments, ses vers disciplinés laissent entrevoir des éclairs d’abandon lyrique qui, ouvertement et implicitement, sont « in need of music » (ont besoin de musique). Elizabeth Bishop adorait la musique et y fait souvent allusion dans son œuvre : classique, jazz, populaire – son oreille était éclectique, mais sans compromis. Mon point de départ, quand j’ai mis ces quatre poèmes en musique, fut la décision de visiter les univers musicaux dont Bishop aurait pu faire l’expérience au cours de sa vie, mais seulement si ces univers pouvaient être suscités par la poésie elle-même. Ma quête visait à découvrir la mélodie à l’intérieur de chaque poème en cherchant les symétries derrière les asymétries alambiquées à la surface de chaque poème : rythme suggéré par la ponctuation, changement de mode suggéré par une indentation singulière dans le texte, séquence de mots rappelant les paroles d’un genre de musique populaire ou image sonore dans le texte, tels les « sifflets d’usine » dans Anaphora qui peuvent être jumelés de manière convaincante à un genre de musique particulier.

Dans I am In Need of Music (j’ai besoin de musique), la première mélodie, un traitement légitimement romantique (presque « nouvel âge ») du texte cède la place à une musique évoquant les chansons populaires de l’époque des bigs bands, pour revenir au lyrisme dans « il y a une magie créée par la mélodie » et finalement à l’impressionnisme musical lorsque la musique tente de peindre le « calme subaquatique de la mer ». Harmonisée en do majeur, tantôt la musique est tonalement stable, tantôt elle module méthodiquement avant de s’installer dans la tonalité supertonique de ré majeur pour le segment « big band » de la mélodie, et de retourner à la tonalité de do majeur pour la conclusion.

La supertonique est étrangement attirante dans la deuxième mélodie également, Insomnia (She is a Daytime Sleeper – elle est une dormeuse de jour). La structure curieuse de ce poème fait en sorte que la rime et le rythme des quatre premiers vers des deux premières strophes correspondent, commes les paroles des chansons populaires, alors que cette symétrie prévisible est compensée par les deux derniers vers non rimés de chaque strophe. Marqués par les styles de musique folk/pop des années 1960 (les Beatles étaient particulièrement présents à mon esprit au moment où je composais cette mélodie), ces deux vers « libres » se terminent en suspension sur la supertonique. Leur répond une ligne instrumentale dans la tonalité principale, sur laquelle on pourrait chanter les paroles « she is a daytime sleeper » (l’auditeur/trice est invité/e à imaginer ces paroles quand il/elle entend cette ligne instrumentale répétée). Les traits d’esprit extravagants de Bishop dans ce poème, en particulier le « and you love me » étonnant à la fin de la pièce, sont traduits en musique, et le résultat est une chanson populaire strophique qui fait semblant de s’approprier le poème. En réalité, malgré son côté « accrocheur », cette mélodie suit la sémantique du poème de près et va jusqu’à jusqu’à « peindre des mots » en associant « le monde inversé » de la troisième strophe au décalement d’une croche dans la mesure, jouant vertigineusement avec la perception des temps forts et faibles chez l’auditeur.
The Unbeliever, le troisième poème, est une description surréaliste d’un rêve rempli d’anxiété. La musique est une valse – croisement entre les deux Strauss (Johann et Richard) – qui module constamment à partir de la tonalité initiale de do majeur et ne reste jamais dans la même tonalité plus de quelques secondes. Le chromatisme omniprésent et les gestes musicaux donnent l’impression d’un numéro d’équilibriste, plongeant dans les profondeurs à la toute fin puis s’évaporant vers les hauteurs le long de la série d’harmoniques de la note do. Cette mélodie est de loin la plus virtuose des quatre, autant pour la soprano que pour l’orchestre. Une fois cette mélodie terminée, je considérais que la composition était achevée, aussi ai-je envoyé la partition à Suzie et à Symphony Nova Scotia.

Après l’avoir réécouté plusieurs fois, cependant, le cycle de mélodies m’est apparu incomplet. J’ai demandé aux commanditaires la permission de rajouter de rajouter une mélodie mettant en musique le poème Anaphora, et on m’a aimablement accordé cette faveur. Anaphora est un poème remarquable. Impénétrable quant à son sens profond, il s’est d’abord présenté à moi comme une méditation sur l’avènement cosmique et la chute d’Adam, suivie par sa transformation en un personnage évoquant le Christ, rachetant le monde par un « événement incandescent » dans un processus continu de « consentement sans fin ». Le début, déverrouillage de notre saint des saints qui utilise comme clé le son et la musique, m’a suggéré immédiatement une mélodie strophique cachée derrière l’asymétrie des vers et des rythmes du poème. Parmi les quatre poèmes, c’est dans Anaphora que mon objectif initial de découvrir la mélodie à l’intérieur du poème est le mieux réalisé. Le titre lui-même me donnait un indice de l’endroit où se cachait la mélodie. Anaphora (« ana-phora » en grec) signifie littéralement rapporter. Étymologiquement, « rapporter » veut dire apporter de nouveau, introduire de nouveau. C’est une allusion cryptique aux nombreuses répétitions de mots et de phrases dans ce poème. En faisant appel à des répétitions supplémentaires de mots clés, j’ai réussi à découvrir une structure strophique qui a permis non seulement l’écriture de cette chanson dans le style de Broadway, mais aussi une correspondance improbable (je dirais même impossible) entre les moments importants de ce poème alambiqué et la structure strophique même de la mélodie. La mélodie s’est littéralement écrite toute seule et a été terminée en un temps record. Elle est dans la tonalité de ré majeur, la supertonique de la tonalité originale de do majeur des deux premiers mouvements qui, comme cette mélodie, ne demandaient qu’à naître et à se mettre en évidence dès le départ. Le début de la deuxième strophe contient une allusion harmonique et mélodique à la première mélodie du cycle sur les mots « more slowly falling into sight ». Il s’agit de ma seule tentative, dans tout le cycle, de faire des références mélodiques croisées entre ces mélodies très différentes, même si l’évolution de l’une à l’autre semble étrangement naturelle et vient démentir leur absence de parenté en surface. Elles sont comme quatre étrangers rattachés par des liens inexplicables qui ne sont pas issus directement de leur propre histoire et nature individuelles, ce qui donne lieu à des tensions aussi bien qu’à une cohésion dans la structure.

Four Song on Poems by Elizabeth Bishop est dédiée à Suzie LeBlanc, à Symphony Nova Scotia et à son chef Berhard Gueller.

The Texts:

I Am in Need of Music

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

 Insomnia (She is a Daytime Sleeper)

The moon in the bureau mirror
looks out a million miles
(and perhaps with pride, at herself,
but she never, never smiles)
far and away beyond sleep, or
perhaps she's a daytime sleeper.

By the Universe deserted,
she'd tell it to go to hell,
and she'd find a body of water,
or a mirror, on which to dwell.
So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well

into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

The Unbeliever

He sleeps on the top of a mast
with his eyes fast closed.
The sails fall away below him
like the sheets of his bed,
leaving out in the air of the night the sleeper's head.

Asleep he was transported there,
asleep he curled
in a gilded ball on the mast's top,
or climbed inside
a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride.

"I am founded on marble pillars,"
said a cloud. "I never move.
See the pillars there in the sea?"
Secure in introspection
he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection.

A gull had wings under his
and remarked that the air
was "like marble." He said: "Up here
I tower through the sky
for the marble wings on my tower-top fly."

But he sleeps on the top of his mast
with his eyes closed tight.
The gull inquired into his dream,
which was, "I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall. 
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.


Each day with so much ceremony
begins, with birds, with bells,
with whistles from a factory;
such white-gold skies our eyes
first open on, such brilliant walls
that for a moment we wonder
"Where is the music coming from, the energy?
The day was meant for what ineffable creature
we must have missed?" Oh promptly he
appears and takes his earthly nature
   instantly, instantly falls
   victim of long intrigue,
   assuming memory and mortal
   mortal fatigue.

More slowly falling into sight
and showering into stippled faces,
darkening, condensing all his light;
in spite of all the dreaming
squandered upon him with that look,
suffers our uses and abuses,
sinks through the drift of bodies,
sinks through the drift of classes
to evening to the beggar in the park
who, weary, without lamp or
  prepares stupendous studies:
   the fiery event
   of every day in endless
   endless assent.


Premiere performance: February 10, 2011. Suzie LeBlanc, soprano; Symphony Nova Scotia under the direction of Berhard Gueller. Rebecca Cohn Auditorium. Dalhausie Arts Centre, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Reviews and Comments:

Toronto composer Chistos Hatzis’s Four Songs stand out for their overt alliance with long, flowing melodies. The sounds are so filled with description that it could be movie music. There is a flesh-and-blood connection here, too, which ties us not to airy concepts but a real human who lived and loved passionately. John Terauds, MUSICAL TORONTO, (October 22, 2013)

Your piece was an exceptional gem in a field that was already populated with wonderful works—yours really stood out for me. Beautifully orchestrated, so sensitive and colourful and respectful of the text and singer. I love the way you can use pop sensibilities but still harness the full colour potential of the orchestra. A masterful blending of the esoteric and exoteric, our inner and outer lives....Thank you so much Christos—we are blessed to have a man like you that we can claim as our own.—J. R. Halifax, NS

I must confess that I am deeply touched by it. I first went through the poetry a couple of times, thinking that there is no way this can be set to music effectively. Well, I was wrong and now after repeated plays I cannot think of a better way for this poetry to be reflected musically—with voice and with an orchestral accompaniment. I find that the most striking thing about the work as a whole is its simplicity, and perhaps that is what makes the more orchestrally fortified moments so effective. In “I am in need of music”, the way you set the last verse is very glittering, and then the final orchestral interlude with the theme in upper string harmonics is a perfect way to seal the movement to a perfect close. “Insomnia” brought back memories of my early teen years:  my parents have a huge LP record collection of the music of your time, which I was only able to listen to when they were not home, for they were very protective of it and thought I would scratch all the records if I used them. So, as a kid, listening to the Beatles (and other bands and singers from that “Era”) was somewhat a banned activity which of course made it a lot of fun...“The Unbeliever” is perhaps my favourite of the four songs. The orchestration is fluid throughout and all special techniques you use are very fitting to the poetry-never sounding out of place. In this song, there is something about the way you use the swirling horn bends, the broken chords on the clarinets, the harp glissandi combined with the flute runs, and the melody outbursts in the high strings that makes this so much fun to listen to. The thundering effect in the lowest register of the harp is also very effective...Finally, “Anaphora” is a perfect way to finish off the cycle. The tranquil moments add to the longing, nostalgic effect offered by both the poetry and the melodic material. “More slowly falling into sight” is a very special, beautiful moment. It is unforgettable. On the more technical side of things, this is a perfect performance, especially for a world premiere. Suzie’s singing is note-perfect...The orchestra does an amazing job, with the strings never going flat, the tempi sound to be right on, and the quality of the recording itself is of a very high quality…Bravo and congratulations on this amazing piece...your music has a life-changing effect on me.—C. C. Toronto, ON

A masterpiece! P. T. Halifax, NS

Wow! I loved the piece instantly when I listened to the MIDI, but hearing it come to life (and with Suzie's incredible voice) is magical. I am so glad you decided to write a fourth is absolutely stunning. What a great closing to such a brilliant work. Congratulations!!—L. S. Toronto

. . Like EB [Elizabeth Bishop] herself and her way of living her life, "historical" is not perhaps "H"istorical—but it is "forever flowing, and flown"—by which I mean, the settings you have created will be sung and sung. Bishop lived her life passionately but quietly, and she is enduring all the more for that way of being. She gets under one's skin and settles in one's mind because what she had to say came from deeply lived experience and a true gaze...The whole EB world (not only in NS but "elsewhere" as EB might say) will welcome these beautiful songs and they will be sung—though for me, I will always hear Suzie's voice carrying them into the world.—S. B. Halifax, NS

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