Carlisle Floyd is one of America's most significant composers, and his catalog is filled with many important large works. But as his name does not appear in even the most comprehensive guides to art song repertory, it may be a bit surprising to see one of his compositions addressed in this series on song.
When Floyd created his work Pilgrimage, in 1955, he based it on Biblical texts, designed it for the concert hall and designated it a 'solo cantata' for low voice and piano (or orchestra). But I submit he should more properly have called this work a song cycle, as its structure is nothing more than a series of five self-standing songs arranged in a musically satisfying sequence to suggest a story. There is the reflective Man that is born of a Woman (Job 14), the distressed and desperate Save me, O Lord, for the Waters are come in Unto my Soul (Psalm 69), an acknowledgement of God's omnipresence and power, O Lord, Thou hast Searched me and Known me (Psalm 139), a joyous song of praise, Praise the Lord, O my soul (Psalms 148-9) and a sublime closing prayer from Romans 8: For I am persuaded.
Whichever format you favor, cantata or song cycle, the remarkable structure Floyd created with his text selections must be appreciated. When he puts the turmoil of the Old Testament behind him and turns--in the concluding song--to the tranquillity of the New Testament, the effect is positively transcendental.
Alas, the collective vocal gamut of this superb work is in excess of two octaves and its emotional and interpretive range is so demanding a singer of professional ability is needed to perform it. Yet several of the less arduous songs are within the abilities of a good, mature student and can be successfully excerpted. And certainly, the quality of this music is so extraordinary it cries out for even a partial performance.
The opening song is an excellent sample of the whole. It is composed on lines selected from Job 14, of the King James version of the Bible. Here is the Biblical text, including the line numbers:
1 Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble.A comparison of the Biblical lines and the song text reveals Floyd has altered some punctuation, omitted several words and repeated some words for emphasis. None of these changes are significant, save one--the dropping of the word not from line seven. This is clearly an inadvertent omission that reverses the meaning and makes nonsense of the sentence. Yet somehow this problem slipped past the composer and the proofreaders and now remains to be corrected by the performer. I suggest changing the final duplet figure in measure #21 to a triplet and singing will not on its last two notes.
2 He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not.
7 For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.
8 Though the root thereof wax old in the earth and the stock thereof die in the ground;
9 Yet through the scent of water it will bud and bring forth boughs like a plant.
10 But man dieth and wasteth away, wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?
11 As the waters fail from the sea and the flood decayeth and drieth up:
12 So man lieth down and riseth not; till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.
The song consists of several well defined sections constructed over an ongoing polyrhythmic pattern in the accompaniment. This subtly unsettled pattern appears to personify the singer as it is absent only during the bridges between sections, when the singer is also absent. Eventually it becomes a forceful, driving presence and, in a remarkable climax, powerfully underlines the uncertain condition of man. Finally, it abates to become a gentle rocking figure, cradling and easing the resignation of the closing line.
The vocal line is wide-ranged, running from low A in the bass clef, up to a climactic, forte, high F and, adding to the difficulty (and interest), there is an exposed sotto voce high E. But it should be noted these high notes are relatively momentary and the tessitura of the song lies comfortably within the staff.
Floyd has written a prefatory note explaining that the piano accompaniment should not be considered a mere orchestral reduction, but an equally valid version that has been conceived for the piano. I would only add that an excellent pianist is required to meet its demands.
Published in 1959, by Boosey and Hawkes, Pilgrimage finds Floyd at the peak of his melodic and dramatic powers and is surely some of the finest music of its time.
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