The first two songs of Despite and Still are “A Last Song” and “My Lizard (Letter Wish for to a Young Love)”. Since this whole discussion of this cycle has been backwards, I will talk about “Lizard” first.
“My Lizard (Letter to Wish for a Young Love)”
“My Lizard”, original poem “Wish for a Young Wife” by Theodore Roethke, begins innocently enough, even comically:
My lizard, my lively writher,
May your limbs never whither,
May the eyes in your face
Survive the green ice
Of envy’s mean gaze;
The accompaniment is quick moving 16th notes. Personally, I wish sometimes that it would be played by a banjo because it would fit right in. Dr.Bruce Leslie Gibbons argues in his very thorough dissertation on the cycle that the piano is in fact demonstrating the flighty qualities of this lizard. It never stops except for one brief moment between the verses, and even at the end, once the singer has given up, the piano rushes headlong into oblivion with an instruction by the composer to not slow down at all.
Of course, being this cycle, the light humor is passing, because the second “verse” shows that sense of loss, loneliness, and isolation that pervade the cycle:
May you live out your life
Without hate, without grief,
And your hair ever blaze,
In the sun, in the sun,
When I am undone
When I am no one.
Even as he sings this, the piano never slows down. Despite his pain, the lizard still keeps going going going.
An interesting tidbit about this song is that Samuel Barber has changed the title to “My Lizard (Letter to Wish for a Young Love)” from “Wish for a Young Wife”. This implies a personal connection to the song. It also gives us clues on how to think of the song in relation to the cycle. Why letter rather than wish? That can be better understood when, finally, the first song “A Last Song” is considered.
[I am not sure how “Letter” entered my consciousness with “My Lizard”. But it got in my brain, and there it stayed until I reread the title. Whoops.]
“A Last Song”
“A Last Song” is the title that Barber gave to Robert Graves’ poem “A Last Poem”:
A last song, and a very last, and yet another,
O, when can I give over?
Must I drive the pen until blood bursts from my nails,
And my breath fails and I shake with fever,
Or sit well wrapped in a many colored cloak
Where the moon shines new through Castle Crystal?
Shall I never hear her whisper softly:
“But this is truth written by you only,
And for me only;
Therefore, love, have done?”
It is in this song that we can find the most information about this cycle. In my key, the piano gives a brief introduction that is in F# minor. The chords are dissonant with brief moments of respite. As the singer enters, two important things happen:
- The singer sings the, what I call, “Despite and Still” theme.
- The key changes to C minor, which is a tritone away from F# minor. The key F# minor is also the key of “Despite and Still”. It returns intrusively as the singer is contemplating the pain he must endure to continue writing. This implies that “A Last Song” and “Despite and Still” have a relationship.
Despite and Still Theme Motive
The “Despite and Still” theme motive is hardly a leitmotiv religiously adhered to, but it is a major unifying device in the cycle. Throughout the piece, there are these rising leaps, followed by a smaller leap or a descent of a second. In this case, the motive is a rising minor sixth followed by a descending half step.
Where else can you find this theme motive? Well, actually the first motive the piano plays in the right hand is a variation on it. Throughout “A Last Song” it appears and re-appears frequently. In “My Lizard” the first motive in the piano is a variation on it as well as the first entrance of the singer. It’s harder to find in “In the Wilderness”, but it appears in the piano after the first time the singer sings “Walked in the wilderness”. The piano theme in “Solitary Hotel” with a rising fifth followed by a falling major second is contains a variation on it. Also, the singer sings it on the words, “On solitary hotel paper she writes”. Most importantly, in “Despite and Still”, the line “To love despite and still” is that theme motive with all the steps in between spelled out.
There are others, and once you begin looking for it, it appears everywhere. Even in other pieces of his it is somewhat discernible. In Barber’s gorgeous “Serenade for Strings” many sections are that “Despite and Still” theme motive passed through different voices (I wasn’t the first to hear that. My girlfriend pointed it out to me).
And what does this theme motive do? I believe that it is the slow budding understanding of what the composer is trying to achieve. The cycle is entitled “Despite and Still”, and the moment when those words are sung is the most complete version of the theme motive. Thus, it is the idea that has not been totally understood by the composer of the songs. The previously mentioned Dr. Gibbons argues that the theme motive is actually the movement of seconds that appears throughout. His idea is a good one, but I just hear that as an abbreviation of the main theme motive, which would make sense if we think of the theme motive itself as being continually developed throughout the cycle.
My Belief About Despite and Still
I believe that this cycle is the embodiment of the frustration of creation. It is as if the composer is trying to create his last work of importance (“A Last Song”), struggles through several drafts that never quite achieve what he wants (“My Lizard”, “In the Wilderness”, Solitary Hotel”) and then finally cuts to the chase and just says what he means without ambiguity in “Despite and Still”. Of course, whatever need he has that prompted this journey is a painful one. “Despite and Still” is not “All You Need is Love”. It appears that a real sense of anguish and loss is at the heart of this cycle. Whoever is doing the loving despite and still is doing it in very masochistic fashion.
And what is causing such anguish? It could have been a number of things. For one, his relationship was straining with Gian Carlo Menotti. Another idea is that he had been humiliated by the debacle of Antony and Cleopatra and yet was still composing. The end of the ’60s for Barber were tough ones, and all of his trials are probably in some way reflected in these songs.
A final thought: I am sure I will learn more about these songs as I continue to research and perform them. Also, some things that are important like the use of cannons and pedal point have been left out, but here I just wanted to give a broad overview of a work that is very confusing.
If you have any ideas, I would love to hear them.
Coming Soon: Video of the performance at my graduate recital so you can see what we did with it.
[My girlfriend pointed out my inconsistent use of “theme” and “motive”. What I am taking about really is a motive rather than a full-fledged theme.]