Three Sonnets of George Santayana (2001)

Winner, De Lorenzo Prize in Music Composition

A short song cycle for soprano, piano, clarinet and cello. The songs are composed on three ecphrastic sonnets: the first a description of a tapestry, the second a cathedral, and the third a statue of Achilles. The settings attempt to embody Santayana’s startling naturalism.

Karen Hall, soprano
Marika Hughes, cello
Matt Ingalls, clarinet
Hadley McCarroll, piano

Recorded live at Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley, May 2nd, 2001.

1st movement:
2nd movement:
3rd movement: 

Program Note: In the past few years, the work of George Santayana (1863-1952) has become increasingly relevant to me. His philosophical writings, although sadly undervalued, still command an occasional glimmer of respect in the philosophical community. This is in contrast to his poetry, which has been universally forgotten. But Santayana began as a poet (seminally influencing writers such as T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens) and his once-celebrated works on aesthetics never stray far from the germ initiated in his poetry.

I have chosen to set three of his ecphrastic sonnets (written between 1896 and 1901): the first a description of a tapestry, the second a cathedral and the third a statue. These poems, anti-romantic in tone, formally conservative, lacking in sensuous imagery, seem anything but expected from Santayana the radical naturalist. But on a second glace we see that the conventional claims of these poems are anything but conventional. How are we to understand the casual declaration of the final line from “Before a Statue of Achilles”? This is precisely the task that I set before myself in composing these settings: to dramatize the poems’ complex ethical and epistemological claims through the co-operation and antagonism of the musical ensemble, to make palpable the startling cosmology that the poems assume — in other words, to give a musical “reading” of these poems in the spirit of which Santayana, the “old philosopher in Rome”, might have been pleased.


Hold high the woof, dear friends, that we may see
The cunning mixture of its colours rare.
Nothing in nature purposely is fair,–
Her beauties in their freedom disagree;
But here all vivid dyes that garish be,
To that tint mellowed which the sense will bear,
Glow, and not wound the eye that resting there,
Lingers to feed its gentle ecstasy.
Crimson and purple and all hues of wine,
Saffron and russet, brown and sober green
Are rich the shadowy depths of blue between;
While silver threads with golden intertwine,
To catch the glimmer of a fickle sheen,–
All the long labour of a captive queen.


For Aeons had the self responsive tide
Risen to ebb, and tempests blown to clear,
And the belated moon refilled her sphere
To wane anew — for, aeons since, she died –
When to the deep that called her earth replied
(Lest year should cancel unavailing year)
And took from her dead heart the stones to rear
A cross-shaped temple to the Crucified.
Then the wild winds through organ-pipes descended
To utter what they meant eternally,
And not in vain the moon devoutly mended
Her wasted taper, lighting Calvary,
While with a psalmody of angels blended
The sullen diapason of the sea.


I gaze on thee as Phidias of old
Or Polyclitus gazed, when first he saw
These hard and shining limbs, without a flaw,
And cast his wonder in heroic mould.
Unhappy me who only may behold,
Nor make immutable and fix in awe
A fair immortal form no worm shall gnaw,
A tempered mind whose faith was never told!
The godlike mien, the lion’s lock and eye,
The well-knit sinew, utter a brave heart
Better than many words that part by part
Spell in strange symbols what serene and whole
In nature lives, nor can in marble die.
The perfect body is itself the soul.

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