Burning Seraph Eyes
4 Short Epitaphs for SATB choir a cappella (2015)
by Ron Hannah

Duration: about 5' 30"
  • 1. The Quest (Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)
  • 2. The Hermit (George William Russell (1867-1935)
  • 3. Secret Music (Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)
  • 4. Another (Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)*

     Many years ago, and for many years, I sang tenor with the Da Camera Singers in Edmonton, Canada. It was a period of great happiness for me. They even performed some choral pieces that I wrote! When I left Edmonton, I did not miss the cold winters but I did miss, and still miss, the warmth of that musical environment.


     In 1992, the group was invited to Austria to take part in a summer choral festival in Eisenstadt, and I was part of that lovely experience. We sang all throughout Burgenland province and in St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna. One day-off I cycled into Hungary, I drank too much local wine, a small group of us stood around the interior of the small cathedral in Eisenstadt and sang just to ourselves, and those memories are magical for me. Now, over 20 years later I find myself living in Eisenstadt, and having just had the great pleasure of hearing the Da Camera Singers perform with their usual ease and grace, in that same cathedral in July 2015! Yes, they have done a second tour of central Europe, and I was able to marvel at them once more and renew acquaitance with a few old friends. My wife Andrea Mellis, also heard them sing and was deeply impressed as I thought she would be. This small composition called itself forth from me in spontaneous response to that visit; I even seemed guided somehow to the texts, and didn't have to engage in a lengthy search through volumes of poetry.

     It is based on four short poems (the last is only 4 lines long* - see below) of a mystical, contemplative nature, and features somewhat dissonant, expressive harmonies that I feel capture the beauty and sadness of the texts. Even so, it will demand a discipline and musicality that Da Camera surely possesses. What I am saying is, it should be attempted only by a mature and well-practiced group of singers. You may hear a computer-generated version of Part 4 by clicking the "Listen" button at left, and download its score, to get a sample of the style. I'll gladly send you the full score, but only if you promise to tell me of any performances so that I can keep this website up-to-date. I shall also make the score available through the Canadian Music Centre (with the same proviso).

     You may notice that the most recent poems in the set date from the early 20th century (the last is from the 17th). It is sad that I feel reluctant to set modern poetry because of current-day copyright restrictions. I never know if a given contemporary poem is being sat on by some publisher, and I am reluctant even to try to find out, to have some bean counter demand a fee. I will pay a fee if and when I see any income! I know other composers who feel the same way, and it is a great loss to the world of music. Still, these older examples have such rich expressiveness and sing the glory of the human spirit (despite that surprise ending in the last line!), that I find them well worthy of a musical setting.

     Here are the texts:

 1. High, hollowed in green above the rocks of reason                  3. I keep such music in my brain
    Lies the crater lake whose ice the dreamer breaks                     No din this side of death can quell;
      to find a summer season                                             Glory exulting over pain,
    "He will plunge like a plummet far into hungry tides"                 And beauty garlanded in hell.
      they cry,
    but as the sea climbs to a lunar magnet so                            My dreaming spirit will not heed
      the dreamer pursues the lake where love resides.                    The roar of guns that would destroy
                                                                          My life that on the gloom can read    
 2. Now the quietude of earth                                             Proud surging melodies of joy.
    Nestles deep my heart within;
    Friendships new and strange have birth                                To the world's end I went, and found
    Since I left the city's din.                                          Death in his carnival of glare;
                                                                          But in my torment I was crowned 
    Here the tempest stays his guile,                                     And music dawned above despair.
    Like a big kind brother plays,
    Romps and pauses here awhile                                           
    From its immemorial ways.

    Now the silver light of dawn                                       4. Here a pretty baby lies
    Slipping through the leaves that fleck                                Sung asleep with lullabies;
    My one window, hurries on,                                            Pray be silent and not stir
    Throws its arms around my neck.                                       Th'easy earth that covers her. 
    Darkness to my doorway hies,
    Lays her chin upon the roof,
    And her burning seraph eyes
    Now no longer keep aloof.

    And the ancient mystery
    Holds its hand out day by day,
    Takes a chair and croons with me
    By my cabin built of clay.

    When the dusky shadow flits,
    By the chimney nook I see
    Where the old enchanter sits,
    Smiles and waves and beckons me.
* I have seen #4, "Another", attributed to Robert Herrick, rather than Anne Bradstreet. Does anyone know who is the real author?