The Little That Was Once A Man was written for James Gilchrist in 2016, following which I revised it extensively in 2019. It was commissioned by the family and friends of the poet Bryan Heiser, shortly after his death, fulfilling a long-standing wish that some of his poems be set to music.
Heiser was born in 1946 and educated at Durham and Harvard universities. He was left wheelchair-bound aged 27 after contracting polio and spent his subsequent years ‘fighting for the rights of the disadvantaged and, through the poetry he wrote, highlighting life’s subtle twists and turns…’ (quoted from a Guardian biography, which can be found here).
The five poems of Heiser’s poems I chose to set are all taken from his Selected Poems (2012) and Poems 2012, both published the year before his death. The list of individual songs is as follows – the third and fourth songs form a pair, under the heading Not Being…, after John Heath-Stubbs’ poem Not Being Oedipus.
- In Someone Else’s Poem
- 4 a.m.
- Not Being… I. The Ordinary Way
- Not Being… II. Misunderstanding
- Moon at Rest
Particularly striking about Heiser’s poetry is its tremendous colour and and stylistic range covering everything from irreverent innuendo and imitations of highfalutin, philosophical claptrap to simple, honest confessions and starkly staring death in the face. One does not need to have read his biography to know this poet is dying, but he is never self-pitying. His poems range from epic works of about 20 pages, all in exact metre and rhymes, to those of merely a dozen words. It was the opportunity to juxtapose in music, cheek-by-jowl, these rather extreme emotions which attracted me to setting his work.
The basic musical material of the song-cycle is the rhythm of a trochaic foot – strong + weak – representing the spoken intonation of the poet’s first and last names: ‘BRY-an HEI-ser’. This is first heard in its simplest form accompanying the concluding lines of In someone else’s poem – ‘whereas in my poem, things are very different’ – acting as a musical ‘signature’. The same rhythm morphs into the chiming of a clock in 4 a.m., which represents the hallucinatory half-dreams of an insomniac. In the two poems which make up Not Being… (a ‘what if…?’ re-telling of episodes from the Oedipus myth) the rhythm becomes a clumsy dance, representing lovers bound by fate fumbling their way towards equanimity, and then a musical cartoon of a swaggering, pelvic thrust in Misunderstanding, in which the hero evades the threat of the Sphinx by seducing her. The same rhythm then forms a cortège-like passacaglia for the final song, ‘Moon at Rest’, a poignant request as to where (and how) his mortal remains – ‘The little that was once a man’ – are to be laid to rest.
The Little That Was Once a Man is recorded on Volume III of ‘100 Years of British Song’, mine and James Gilchrist’s ‘intriguing three-part exploration of British classical songs’ (The Sunday Times) for SOMM Recordings. To listen, purchase and discover more, please visit the album page on the SOMM website by clicking here.
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