hey nineteen: january pieces

Poem: Sunday by January Gill O’Neil

You are the start of the week
or the end of it, and according
to The Beatles you creep in
like a nun. You're the second
full day the kids have been
away with their father, the second
full day of an empty house.
Sunday, I've missed you. I've been
sitting in the backyard with a glass
of Pinot waiting for your arrival.
Did you know the first Sweet 100s
are turning red in the garden,
but the lettuce has grown
too bitter to eat. I am looking
up at the bluest sky I have ever seen,
cerulean blue, a heaven sky
no one would believe I was under.
You are my witness. No day
is promised. You are absolution.
You are my unwritten to-do list,
my dishes in the sink, my brownie
breakfast, my braless day.

Thought: David Whyte on naming love

“Naming love too early is a beautiful but harrowing human difficulty. Most of our heartbreak comes from attempting to name who or what we love and the way we love, too early in the vulnerable journey of discovery.

We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations. Feeling bereft we take our identity as one who is disappointed in love, our almost proud disappointment preventing us from seeing the lack of reciprocation from the person or the situation as simply a difficult invitation into a deeper and as yet unrecognizable form of affection.”

Song: This Will Be Our Year by The Zombies

how to be perfect

Everything is perfect, dear friend.

Get some sleep.
Don't give advice.
Take care of your teeth and gums.
Don't be afraid of anything beyond your control. Don't be afraid, for instance, that the building will collapse as you sleep, or that someone you love will suddenly drop dead.
Eat an orange every morning.
Be friendly. It will help make you happy.
Raise your pulse rate to 120 beats per minute for 20 straight minutes our or five times a week doing anything you enjoy.
Hope for everything. Expect nothing.
Take care of things close to home first. Straighten up your room before you save the world. Then save the world.
Know that the desire to be perfect is probably the veiled expression of another desire—to be loved, perhaps, or not to die.
Make eye contact with a tree.
Be skeptical about all opinions, but try to see some value in each of them.
Dress in a way that pleases both you and those around you.
Do not speak quickly.
Learn something every day. (Dzien dobre!)
Be nice to people before they have a chance to behave badly.
Don't stay angry about anything for more than a week, but don't forget what made you angry. Hold your anger out at arm's length and look at it, as if it were a glass ball. Then add it to your glass ball collection.
Be loyal.
Wear comfortable shoes.
Design your activities so that they show a pleasing balance and variety.
Be kind to old people, even when they are obnoxious. When you become old, be kind to young people. Do not throw your cane at them when they call you Grandpa. They are your grandchildren!
Live with an animal.
Do not spend too much time with large groups of people.
If you need help, ask for it.
Cultivate good posture until it becomes natural.
If someone murders your child, get a shotgun and blow his head off.
Plan your day so you never have to rush.
Show your appreciation to people who do things for you, even if you have paid them, even if they do favors you don't want.
Do not waste money you could be giving to those who need it.
Expect society to be defective. Then weep when you find that it is far more defective than you imagined.
When you borrow something, return it in an even better condition.
As much as possible, use wooden objects instead of plastic or metal ones.
Look at that bird over there.
After dinner, wash the dishes.
Calm down.
Visit foreign countries, except those whose inhabitants have expressed a desire to kill you.
Don't expect your children to love you, so they can, if they want to.
Meditate on the spiritual. Then go a little further, if you feel like it.
What is out (in) there?
Sing, every once in a while.
Be on time, but if you are late do not give a detailed and lengthy excuse.
Don't be too self-critical or too self-congratulatory.
Don't think that progress exists. It doesn't.
Walk upstairs.
Do not practice cannibalism.
Imagine what you would like to see happen, and then don't do anything to make it impossible.
Take your phone off the hook at least twice a week.
Keep your windows clean.
Extirpate all traces of personal ambitiousness.
Don't use the word extirpate too often.
Forgive your country every once in a while. If that is not possible, go to another one.
If you feel tired, rest.
Grow something.
Do not wander through train stations muttering, "We're all going to die!"
Count among your true friends people of various stations of life.
Appreciate simple pleasures, such as the pleasure of chewing, the pleasure of warm water running down your back, the pleasure of a cool breeze, the pleasure of falling asleep.
Do not exclaim, "Isn't technology wonderful!"
Learn how to stretch your muscles. Stretch them every day.
Don't be depressed about growing older. It will make you feel even older. Which is depressing.
Do one thing at a time.
If you burn your finger, put it in cold water immediately. If you bang your finger with a hammer, hold your hand in the air for twenty minutes. You will be surprised by the curative powers of coldness and gravity.
Learn how to whistle at earsplitting volume.
Be calm in a crisis. The more critical the situation, the calmer you should be.
Enjoy sex, but don't become obsessed with it. Except for brief periods in your adolescence, youth, middle age, and old age.
Contemplate everything's opposite.
If you're struck with the fear that you've swum out too far in the ocean, turn around and go back to the lifeboat.
Keep your childish self alive.
Answer letters promptly. Use attractive stamps, like the one with a tornado on it.
Cry every once in a while, but only when alone. Then appreciate how much better you feel. Don't be embarrassed about feeling better.
Do not inhale smoke.
Take a deep breath.
Do not smart off to a policeman.
Do not step off the curb until you can walk all the way across the street. From the curb you can study the pedestrians who are trapped in the middle of the crazed and roaring traffic.
Be good.
Walk down different streets.
Remember beauty, which exists, and truth, which does not. Notice that the idea of truth is just as powerful as the idea of beauty.
Stay out of jail.
In later life, become a mystic.
Use Colgate toothpaste in the new Tartar Control formula.
Visit friends and acquaintances in the hospital. When you feel it is time to leave, do so.
Be honest with yourself, diplomatic with others.
Do not go crazy a lot. It's a waste of time.
Read and reread great books.
Dig a hole with a shovel.
In winter, before you go to bed, humidify your bedroom.
Know that the only perfect things are a 300 game in bowling and a 27-batter, 27-out game in baseball.
Drink plenty of water. When asked what you would like to drink, say, "Water, please."
Ask "Where is the loo?" but not "Where can I urinate?"
Be kind to physical objects.
Beginning at age forty, get a complete "physical" every few years from a doctor you trust and feel comfortable with.
Don't read the newspaper more than once a year.
Learn how to say "hello," "thank you," and "chopsticks" in Mandarin.
Belch and fart, but quietly.
Be especially cordial to foreigners.
See shadow puppet plays and imagine that you are one of the characters. Or all of them.
Take out the trash.
Love life.
Use exact change.
When there's shooting in the street, don't go near the window.

playing the field | words from the week (x)

Jim Jarmusch’s Rule #5 in MovieMaker Magazine:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”

Marianne Power on a moment of kindness for Conversations On Love:

“A few Christmases ago I was in the middle of a period of depression and on my way back from a trip to Ireland where my best friend had been looking after me. I landed back in London Kings Cross to a city in the middle of its office party. Everyone was excited and delighted and I felt like I was falling off the edge of the world. I got in a taxi home and when the driver asked me how I was, instead of pretending I was fine, I found myself saying: 'I feel like I'm losing my mind.' For the next hour he listened to me as I poured out a matted jumble of thoughts and feelings. He listened like he understood every word I said. He told me about his own breakdown. He told me that I would come back together again but I had to go easy on myself. 'Watch Paddington,' he said. 'And have a cry whenever you need to. I used to cry all the time, even in the cab, I'd cry behind dark glasses.' That advice has always stayed in my head: 'Watch Paddington and cry when you need to.' I don't even know his name but he was my Christmas angel.”

On the end of the year, from Laura Olin’s newsletter:

“A thought that came to me while watching a bunch of impressive speakers at a conference this fall, feeling sad I hadn't accomplished as much this year as they had: "Maybe surviving this year was enough." It was a rough year for a lot of people, and if that was true for you too, I invite you to give yourself a break about not doing all you may have hoped at the beginning of the year. If you're still here, you've come out ahead in the biggest way that matters. Here's to survival+ next year.”

playing the field | words from the week (IX)

When I Tell My Husband I Miss the Sun, He Knows by Paige Lewis:

what I really mean. He paints my name

across the floral bed sheet and ties the bottom corners
to my ankles. Then he paints another

for himself. We walk into town and play the shadow game,
saying Oh! I’m sorry for stepping on your

shadow! and Please be careful! My shadow is caught in the
of your shopping cart.
It’s all very polite.

Our shadows get dirty just like anyone’s, so we take
them to the Laundromat—the one with

the 1996 Olympics themed pinball machine—
and watch our shadows warm

against each other. We bring the shadow game home
and (this is my favorite part) when we

stretch our shadows across the bed, we get so tangled
my husband grips his own wrist,

certain it’s my wrist, and kisses it.

Eileen Myles on the importance of poetry in the New York Times:

“Poetry always, always, always is a key piece of democracy. It’s like the un-Trump: The poet is the charismatic loser. You’re the fool in Shakespeare; you’re the loose cannon. As things get worse, poetry gets better, because it becomes more necessary.”

Toni Morrison on work in the New Yorker:

  1. Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself.

  2. You make the job; it doesn’t make you.

  3. Your real life is with us, your family.

  4. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.

playing the field | words from the week (VIII)

Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s poem, Hammond B3 Organ Cistern, featured in the New Yorker:

The days I don’t want to kill myself
are extraordinary. Deep bass. All the people
in the streets waiting for their high fives
and leaping, I mean leaping,
when they see me. I am the sun-filled
god of love. Or at least an optimistic
under-secretary. There should be a word for it.
The days you wake up and do not want
to slit your throat. Money in the bank.
Enough for an iced green tea every weekday
and Saturday and Sunday! It’s like being
in the armpit of a Hammond B3 organ.
Just reeks of gratitude and funk.
The funk of ages. I am not going to ruin
my love’s life today. It’s like the time I said yes
to gray sneakers but then the salesman said
Wait. And there, out of the back room,
like the bakery’s first biscuits: bright-blue kicks.
Iridescent. Like a scarab! Oh, who am I kidding,
it was nothing like a scarab! It was like
bright. blue. forking. sneakers! I did not
want to die that day. Oh, my God.
Why don’t we talk about it? How good it feels.
And if you don’t know then you’re lucky
but also you poor thing. Bring the band out on the stoop.
Let the whole neighborhood hear. Come on, Everybody.
Say it with me nice and slow
   no pills  no cliff  no brains onthe floor
Bring the bass back.    no rope  no hose  not today, Satan.
Every day I wake up with my good fortune
and news of my demise. Don’t keep it from me.
Why don’t we have a name for it?
Bring the bass back. Bring the band out on the stoop.

Rebecca Solnit on the value of getting lost, in her incredible book “A Field Guid to Getting Lost”:

“Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”

William Cheng (pianist and teacher) on the implications of being a musician that can no longer play:

“My inability to translate suffering into artistry has made me doubt, among other things, how much I care about music — a strange rabbit hole for a music professor and lifelong musician. For if I loved music enough, shouldn’t music sometimes be enough to comfort me? Or, to frame this as the three-word inquiry at the heart of any difficult relationship: Is love enough?

As much as I would’ve hoped otherwise, music wasn’t. It was just one more thing excised from my daily activities, one more broken luxury in a life falling silent. The more I’ve felt pressured to rekindle my love for music, the more dejected I’ve become in failing to do so.

It’s marvelous, to be sure, when music therapy works, and I have nothing but admiration for artists who play and dance through disability or agony. It’s important to believe in heroes and hear their hopeful songs. It’s no less important, however, to relate and listen to the abundant stories that diverge from the happy overcoming tales that pervade our media. Because inspiration porn — like any porn — isn’t always grounded in reality, instead propping up stratospheric standards of beauty, stamina and narrative intrigue.

Not everyone gets to be a hero. Some people barely manage to hold on. So from time to time, let’s tell certain illness and disability stories as they are — even if they don’t come with the superhuman protagonists or stirring soundtracks we so crave.”

relationship to work

“My Therapist Wants to Know about My Relationship to Work”

I hustle
I grasp.
I grind.
I control & panic. Poke
balloons in my chest,
always popping there,
always my thoughts thump,
thump. I snooze — wake & go
boom. All day, like this I short
my breath. I scroll & scroll.
I see what you wrote — I like.
I heart. My thumb, so tired.
My head bent down, but not
in prayer, heavy from the looking.
I see your face, your phone-lit
faces. I tap your food, two times
for more hearts. I retweet.
I email: yes & yes & yes.
Then I cry & need to say: no-no-no.
Why does it take so long to reply?
I FOMO & shout. I read. I never
enough. New book. New post.
New ping. A new tab, then another.
Papers on the floor, scattered & stacked.
So many journals, unbroken white spines,
waiting. Did you hear that new new?
I start to text back. Ellipsis, then I forget.
I balk. I lazy the bed. I wallow when I write.
I truth when I lie. I throw a book
when a poem undoes me. I underline
Clifton: today we are possible. I start
from image. I begin with Phillis Wheatley.
I begin with Phillis Wheatley. I begin
with Phillis Wheatley reaching for coal.
I start with a napkin, receipt, or my hand.
I muscle memory. I stutter the page. I fail.
Hit delete — scratch out one more line. I sonnet,
then break form. I make tea, use two bags.
Rooibos again. I bathe now. Epsom salt.
No books or phone. Just water & the sound
of water filling, glory — be my buoyant body,
bowl of me. Yes, lavender, more bubbles
& bath bomb, of course some candles too.
All alone with Coltrane. My favorite, “Naima,”
for his wife, now for me, inside my own womb.
Again, I child back. I float. I sing. I simple
& humble. Eyes close. I low my voice,
was it a psalm? Don’t know. But I stopped.

- Tiana Clark

playing the field | words from the week (vii)

Anni Spadafora via Maryanne Casasanta’s Evenings and Mornings Spent Feeling Less Vulnerable:

“When I was a kid I’d ask my mama to make me ‘toota’: one part mildly steeped orange pekoe tea, 3 parts 2% milk, and lots of sugar. Toota. It was my discovery of the mighty feeling that comes with something hot on the roof of my mouth. Though I’m not sure when I first imagined that this wet heat could will me to the needs of my day.

I keep an endless archive of those who similarly rely on this imagined will. I watch them pass through a place like this: A food scientist meeting his copywriter to expedite his cricket-protein pasta sauce invention, a new mom who hasn’t left the house in 48 hours, two women who meet every week at the same hour to hash out the emotional boulders that don’t seem to budge.

Losing someone, winning something, idle time—coffee is often paired, and it’s cheap. How you take it is as boring as which wrist you drape your watch on. But it’s as relieving as rain when air is muscle-thick. It’s also just something hot on the roof of your mouth.”

Shriya Samavai on simple nourishment for The Moon Lists:

“The other night I skipped a party and went out to dinner with a friend instead. We sat at the restaurant and talked for two or three hours, then went on a leisurely walk through the neighborhood. It felt very right. I went home and read poetry and slept well.”

Burning the Old Year from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye:

“Letters swallow themselves in seconds.   
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,   
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,   
lists of vegetables, partial poems.   
Orange swirling flame of days,   
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,   
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.   
I begin again with the smallest numbers.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,   
only the things I didn’t do   
crackle after the blazing dies.”

melbourne symphony orchestra | french classics

The repertoire in store for you tonight is truly inspired, it dips and weaves beginning with one of the most important and influential orchestral works of all time, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, before moving into Prokofiev’s third piano concerto – arguably his most famous – which while you may question how this piece appeared amongst the French-born composers, was written by the composer during his time in Brittany, on France’s coastline. Following the Prokofiev, we will return to Debussy, with some added help from our friend Brett Dean, who has masterfully orchestrated the Ariettes Oubliées (Forgotten Songs) for orchestra and mezzo soprano and we end the evening with a work that Stravinsky hailed as ‘one of most beautiful products in all of French music’, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, the second suite. So, now you know about the musical feast ahead of you, let’s dive in, beginning in 1880s Paris.

Debussy is in his 20s in the 1880s, playing as an accompanist for singing classes, having affairs with the singing students he was playing for, and composing, doing great amounts of composing. In the years prior, he had studied the form at the Conservatoire in Paris, where he’d been since the age of 10 – initially as an industrious piano student and excellent sight reader, but eventually, as a failed piano student but active composition major. Now, his exam failures had nothing to do with his talent, but more to do with the intermittent diligence he showed in his studies. Debussy’s interest in composition only continued to strengthen as his performance career took a backseat, which again, started well, but as his ideas got bigger and bolder and stopped fitting the mould the Conservatoire was happily operating within, his work began to garner faculty disapproval. His composition teacher in particular was upset that his promising student seemed incapable of following any of the orthodox compositional rules he had painstakingly laid out in front of him.  

But, experimentation pays off, and just a few years after he left his formal studies, he won France’s most significant music award, the Prix de Rome. He had chased his own artistic ideas, and it had paid off. There was no turning back for Debussy. On the music he was creating, the composer said “I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!” And lucky we are that he did, for his own artistic ideas and the circles in which he ran in the heady time that was the 1880s and 90s in Paris – the beginnings of La Belle Époque and a vibrant time for artists, musicians and poets, bohemian’s and freethinkers – led him to discover the great impressionist fine artists and influential poets whose work would inspire the pieces we will hear later in the program, but also this first work, the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

Stéphane Mallarmé, the French symbolist poet and critic, was a bohemian in the truest sense – he worked as an English teacher, which afforded him no luxury, and he spent most of his adult life living in more or less poverty, but was incredibly well known around Paris for his salons – gathering groups of artists and intellectuals and people of general interest for long discussions on philosophy and life and art and poetry. The group gathered on Tuesdays, and become known as les Mardistes, welcoming significant figures not only from France but across Europe. It was at one of these events that Debussy first heard a reading of Mallarmé’s poem about that fateful faun. The poem itself is incredibly important in the history of French literature, and specifically, the development of symbolism in French poetry. It is a sensual piece of poetry full of evocative language and brilliant imagery, when reading it, you can see vivid colour, which I suppose gives away the thing that Debussy saw in the poem and drew him to create a symphonic reading of the text. He wasn’t the only one tugged by the words though; Ravel, Milhaud and Boulez all created pieces that drew on the faun and his dream.   

So, the music! Debussy has created a re-reading of the poem with symphonic colour. It sits somewhere between awake and dream and as you listen, you can almost feel yourself moving in between those two states. He is drawing out that moment that occurs just as you open your eyes after a deep sleep; are you fully awake? Not quite. But you still hold all the comings and goings of your fantasies in your mind. Here is a little of the beginning. Close your eyes, if you’d like and consider this quote from the composer himself as you listen:  “The music I desire must be supple enough to adapt itself to the lyrical effusions of the soul and the fantasy of dreams.” 

That recording was Daniel Barenboim and Orchestre de Paris. It’s a familiar opening, a dreamy opening that uses the orchestra in a beautifully clever way; there is an ebb and flow, a push and pull, perhaps to mirror sleeping and awake that means we listeners aren’t afforded a grasp on where Debussy is taking us. There are themes of course, and repeated harmonic ideas, but the swells are unpredictable and unrestrained. It is a meditation of the faun; we are utterly at his whim. It’s no surprise then that despite the short nature of the work, it’s only nine minutes and feels as if it’s over much before that time is up, that the symphonic poem is often referred to as a miracle of musical history.

But, for now, dreaming is over and a new verse is to be read. We stay in France, but move away from Paris to Brittany, the country’s northwesternmost region. It has a rugged coastline that extends out towards the Atlantic Ocean and one of its coastal villages is where the composer Sergei Prokofiev found himself for a great stretch during the Spring and Summer of 1921. Prokofiev had begun thinking about his third piano concerto a number of years previously, jotting down small scraps of musical ideas but not completing any until he arrived in France. Ever a resourceful writer, Prokofiev never threw any ideas aside – he always held onto them in case of a later project, which this particular concerto turned out to be. I must say, if this is the cobbling together of the composers scraps, then we are dealing with a most impressive artist! When he got to Brittany he spent time with other Russians who found themselves also Summer-ing along the coast at that time, one of whom was the symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont, whom Prokofiev had known in Russia. Balmont was one of the first people to hear the almost finished piano concerto and on hearing the work, he wrote a few lines to Prokofiev inspired by the music he heard. “Prokofiev!” he wrote, “Music and youth in bloom in you, the orchestra yearns for forgotten summer sounds.” These sweet words came several years after the pairs first collaboration and earned Balmont the work’s dedication. 

The music itself is virtuosic but not simply for the sake of showing off. It’s full of expression, which holds court, regardless of the soloistic fireworks. In three movements, which is usual for a concerto but also relatively unusual for a Prokofiev concerto, this piano work is famously difficult and requires dexterity and stamina of its soloist. Interestingly, I think, for a piece that has become an absolute staple of the concerti diet, if you will, this concerto wasn’t super well received when it was premiered by the composer in the United States. He played it twice in its year of composition – once in Chicago and then again in New York, and neither time did the audience get into it. Prokofiev famously said that the American public “did not quite understand the work”. Luckily, we the Australian public, absolutely do.

Now, rather than play you the concerto itself, I’d like to play you the first of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives – a series of short piano pieces written a little earlier than the full concerto, but around the exact time the composer began sketching tonight’s work. Prokofiev played these works for Balmont and the poet composed a sonnet on the spot called “a magnificent improvisation”. The name of the collected works, Visions Fugitives, came from this line in Balmont’s sonnet – “In every fleeting vision I see worlds, Filled with the fickle play of rainbows”. This is Maria Raspopova playing Lentamente from Prokofiev’s Visions.

The theme of tonight must be poetry, because we now move back to glorious Debussy, but this time with the poetry of Paul Verlaine, who led an incredibly interesting life. His behaviour was scandalous and caused all sorts of problems with the public and with the literary set. He was a nightmare child, prone to fits of rage that pointed to his behaviour and his poetry as an adult. Verlaine was interested only in poetry and dreams, and like Debussy, as a young person struggled against expectations and institutionalised creativity, following his own path and interests doggedly. Inspired significantly by Charles Baudelaire, his early work was a way of finding peace from a world he wasn’t comfortable in, favouring his dream worlds and ideals of love, symbolism and decadence over real life. He met Debussy through his mother in law, who became the composer’s teacher when he was starting out at the Paris Conservatoire as a tiny eight-year-old. He grew up, more or less then, with Verlaine’s influence, and when he travelled to Rome following his major prize win that I touched on earlier, he packed in his bag the poet’s collection Songs Without Words, which, coincidentally included the poem Ariettes oubliées. Interesting to note the title of the collection, Songs Without Words, and Verlaine’s evident interest in rhythm, tone and timbre. Of course, you can’t have a poem without words, but the feeling of the poem, the maturity of its structure and its broader significance aside from each placement show a heightened understanding of the voice and its emotion.

They lent themselves, these poems, to composition, to orchestration and to the voice. Each piece is a masterclass in capturing and distilling feeling, in its original form, for voice and piano, and tonight, for voice and orchestra. The six songs are tiny stories that work entirely appropriately on their own but together, show a complicated protagonist trying to understand parts of the world and the human condition. We start in ecstasy, the first poem describing the beauty of love and the joy of nature – trees rustle, the breeze moves gently and the grass waves but this contentment does not last – immediately any feeling of happiness turns to sorrow for two songs – there is weeping in our protagonist’s heart that is mirrored by the rain outside. The rain may stop in the third, but the hurting doesn’t – the shadows of trees move like smoke in the river and the doves cry sadly, taking up our poet’s mourning. Finally, we feel we are allowed a moment of relief in the fourth song, with a merry-go-round overrun with children at the centre, but of course with great excitement at games that throw you around, you inevitably have to pack up and go home, a little headachy and overwhelmed. The final two songs are reflections of colours, of feelings. In the fifth, our poet offers presents to their love, anything they can think: fruit, flowers, leaves, trinkets, and their heart, which they beg not to be destroyed. Finally, our poet is tired of all the colours and the presents and the natural things they once loved. All they want is the love from that one special, but elusive person.

I would like to play you just a little of one song, the second, which I find particularly heart-breaking. Il pleure dans mon coeur, it goes, the tears are falling in my heart the way the rain falls on the city; what is this languorous dart that pierces through my heart? The arrangements of these songs that you will hear tonight are by the incomparable Brett Dean, who takes Debussy’s sparkling piano part and turns it into an absolute feast for the entire orchestra. You will be blown away by the stunning settings, but for now, here it is as it was written. Il pleure dans mon Coeur for piano and soprano:  

We’re lucky now that after all that heartbreak we come to a story that, while there are moments of terror and of almost despair, gives us a well-deserved happy ending. Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé came to the stage as a commission Sergei Diaghilev’s then new company, the Ballets Russes. The company choreographer had adapted the story from a romance by the Greek writer Longus – the two title characters are beautiful and innocent and very much in love, and they scramble through a series of conundrums, including kidnapping, before the god Pan steps in and assists them to find one another again. The entire ballet took Ravel a number of years to complete; he was a particularly painstaking composer and constructed the piece as a “choreographic symphony” that covers an enormous amount of musical material and uses a large orchestral palette in a similar way to Debussy’s Afternoon.

The composer used the works of eighteenth century French artists to inspire his mental picture of Greece and creates sounds throughout the orchestra to depict how he imagined the soundscape. Woodwinds become the birds, the flute portrays the nymph Syrinx and strings removing their mutes allows us to picture the sun rising getting warmer and higher in the sky. The ballet itself caused Ravel frustration; working with competing artistic collaborators forced him to set out on his own and he created two suites for orchestral performance, the second one we will hear tonight. It looks at the last scene of the ballet, when our two lovers are reunited, and it is, as Stravinsky said, some of the more beautiful music, French or otherwise, of all time. Here is a moment of Lever du jour, or Daybreak:

If you’re not familiar with the ballet let me tell you where we pick things up in the story in the second suite. Daphnis is sleeping, and so is not aware that his love, Chloé has been found. The day breaks, as we heard, and seeing Chloé, shepherds wake Daphnis and the lovers are reunited as the sun rises. Everything in the orchestra rises and becomes warm. The two dance together honouring Pan, the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks who assisted their reunion, until the Pan himself appears and plays his flute for Chloé to dance to. Finally, all nymphs and shepherds join together to dance in joy; the perfect way to end our French feast this evening. Now, in the score you might hear things that sound a little like Stravinsky, perhaps some Rimsky-Korsakov and even Debussy in that gorgeous wordless chorus that ends the work, but the heart of this piece is so very Ravel. The end is an absolute celebration of love and life and nature and you will hear all of this in the orchestration that is still an incredibly important piece of work that continues to inspire orchestral composers today.

So, we’ve come a long way from the dreamscape that we began with. We’ve battled heartbreak and sorrow, we’ve read poetry and understood virtuosity. I have nothing left to leave you with, except for just one more verse by the poet we met earlier, Paul Verlaine. This one was not set by Debussy, but says everything we need it to say about music:

Let music be, more of it and always!
Let your verse be the thing in motion
Which one feels who flees from an altering soul,
Towards other skies to other loves.

Let your verse be the happy occurrence,
Somehow within the restless morning wind, 
Which goes about smelling of mint and thyme...
And all the rest is literature.