Songs of Jack Beeson

























Born in 1921 in Muncie, Indiana (soon to become known as the typical American city, Middletown), Mr. Beeson was no typical Hoosier. As is often the case with over-achievers, he was often ill as a child. Nevertheless, he studied piano energetically, and clarinet, xylophone, theory, and music history on the side. While writing an abortive mystery novel, he was seduced by the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts into deciding to become an opera composer and then wrote three libretti, sketching some of the music.


After five years at the Eastman School of Music and a year of study with Béla Bartók (1944-45) he served an apprenticeship as coach and conductor in the Columbia University Opera Workshop and its series of American opera premieres. After a half century of teaching at Columbia he is presently MacDowell Professor Emeritus of Music.


Maintaining his early interest in setting words to music, he has composed ten operas, four of them to his own libretti. He has also written much solo vocal and choral music, as well as a respectable number of orchestral and chamber works.


The recipient of numerous commissions and awards, he has long served his fellow American composers on the boards and juries of music organizations such as the Ditson Fund, Columbia University Press, NEA, CRI, ASCAP, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.




This selection of twenty-six songs (and two arias from operas) comprises about a third of my works for solo voice and piano and most of those written for soprano.* The poetry dates from the end of the sixteenth century to the late twentieth century and encompasses a wide variety of styles and subject-matter. In order to reflect this variety, the music ranges widely in style, from the simplicities of the Blake settings to the 12-tone serialism of Fire, Fire, Quench Desire. Hughes's black-magic Death by Owl-Eyes invokes a traversal of musical idioms from early Renaissance open fifths to some of the habits of the 1960's. The song is dedicated to Otto Luening, another 20th century time-traveller.


As might be expected of a composer and librettist of operas, some of these songs—and many of those for other voices—suggest a dramatic context and the presence of another character listening. For the most part, the words are set exactly as written by the poet, but occasionally I exercise what may be called “musical license.” Sung words in recital or in the theatre pass swiftly and cannot be pondered as can words on the page: it can be helpful to hearer and performer if the composer repeats a word or phrase for clarity or for emphasis.


It is often forgotten that a musical setting is, so to speak, an arrangement of a poem: it is the composer's interpretation of the words, made audible by means of his or her choice of pitch, tessitura, accentuation, and phrasing in the vocal line, and choice of style, mood, and implied action (if any) in the accompaniment. The line, “To be or not to be, that is the question:” has been delivered in many ways over the centuries. Once set to music, the composer's reading of the line is fixed in all performances, for singers and pianists cannot stray far from the written notes.


- Jack Beeson
















SIX LYRICS (1952, revised 1959 & 1995)






Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849)


If there were dreams to sell,


What would you buy?


Some cost a passing bell;


Some a light sigh,


That shakes from Life's fresh crown


Only a rose leaf down.


If there were dreams to sell,


Merry and sad to tell,


And the crier rang the bell,


What would you buy?


A cottage lone and still,


With bowers nigh,


Shadowy, my woes to still


Until I die.


Such pearl from Life's fresh crown


Fain would I shake me down.


Were dreams to have at will,


This would best heal my ill,


This would I buy.






Thomas Lovell Beddoes


If thou wilt ease thine heart


Of love and all its smart,


Then sleep, dear, sleep:


And not a sorrow


Hang any tear on your eyelashes;


Lie still and deep,


Sad soul


Until the sea-wave washes the rim


Of the sun tomorrow in eastern sky.


But wilt thou cure thine heart


Of love and all its smart


Then die, dear, die;


`Tis deeper, sweeter,


Than on a rose-bank to lie dreaming with folded eye;


And there alone, amid the beaming


Of Love's stars, thou'lt meet her in eastern sky.


Who Sighs that All Dies?


Herman Melville (1819-91)


Dies, all dies!


The grass it dies, but in vernal rain


Up it springs, and it lives again:


Over and over, again and again, it lives, it dies,


And it lives again, and over and over again,


Who sighs that all dies?


Summer and winter, pleasure and pain,


Everything, everywhere in God's reign.


They end, and anon they begin again:


Wane and wax and wane:


Over and over and over amain,


End, ever end, and begin again.




The Moon


Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)




And, like a dying lady lean and pale,


Who totters forth, wrapped in a gauzy veil,


Out of her chamber, led by the insane


And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,


The moon arose up in the murky east


A white and shapeless mass.




Jasper Mayne (1604-72)


Time is the feathered thing,


And, while I praise the sparklings of thy looks


And call them rays,


Takes wing,


Leaving behind him as he flies


An unperceivéd dimness in thine eyes.


His minutes, while they're told, do make us old;


And ev'ry sand of his fleet glass


Increasing age as it doth pass,


Insensibly sows wrinkles there


Where flowers and roses do appear.


Whilst we do speak, our fire


Doth into ice expire,


Flames turn to frost;


And ere we can know how our crow turns swan,


Or how a silver snow


Springs there where jet did grow—ere we can know—


Our fading spring is in dull winter lost.


Since then the Night hath hurled


Darkness, Love's shade,


Over its enemy the Day, and made


The world just such a blind and shapeless thing


As it was before light did from darkness spring—


Since this be so—


Let's number out the hours by blisses,


And count the minutes by our kisses;


Let the heavens new motions feel


And by our embraces wheel;


And whilst we try the way


By which Love doth convey


Soul unto soul,


And mingling so


Makes them such raptures know


As makes them entrancéd lie


In mutual ecstasy,


Let the harmonious spheres in music roll!




The Conclusion


Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618)


Even such is Time, that takes in trust


Our youth, our joys, our all we have,


And pays us but with earth and dust;


Who in the dark and silent grave,


When we have wandered all our ways,


Shuts up the story of our days;


But from this earth, this grave, this dust,


My God shall raise me up, I trust.




Copyright 1995; reprinted with permission of Jack Beeson and Boosey and Hawkes, Inc.




I Shall Forget You Presently


Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)


I shall forget you presently, my dear,


So make the most of this, your little day,


Your little month, your little half a year,


Ere I forget, or die, or move away,


And we are done forever; by and by


I shall forget you, as I said, but now, now,


If you entreat me with your loveliest lie


I will protest you with my favorite vow.


I would indeed that love were longer-lived,


And oaths were not so brittle as they are,


But so it is, and nature has contrived


To struggle on without a break thus far -


Whether or not we find what we are seeking


Is idle, biologically speaking.




What Lips My Lips Have Kissed


What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,


I have forgotten, and what arms have lain


Under my head till morning; but the rain


Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh


Upon the glass and listen for reply,


And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain


For unremembered lads that not again


Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.


Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,


Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,


Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:


I cannot say what loves have come and gone,


I only know that summer sang in me


A little while, that in me sings no more.




Text reprinted by permission of the Estate of Edna St. Vincent Millay.




Boosey and Hawkes, copyright 1999, and reprinted by permission.


FIVE SONGS (1946, revised 1951)


poems by Francis Quarles (1592-1644)




On A Spiritual Fever


My soul hath had a fever a long while;


Oh, I can neither relish nor digest;


My nimble pulses beat,


My veins do boil,


I cannot close mine eyes,


I cannot rest:


Oh, for a surgeon to strike a vein.


That, that would lay my heat and ease my pain:


No, no, it is thy blood and not my own,


Thy blood must cure me, Jesus,


Or else none.




A Good Night


Close now thine eyes and rest secure;


Thy soul is safe enough, thy body sure;


He that loves thee,


He that keeps and guards thee,


Never slumbers, never sleeps.


The smiling conscience in a sleeping breast


Has only peace,


Has only rest;


The music and the mirth of kings


Are all but discords when she sings;


Then close thine eyes and rest secure;


No sleep so sweet as thine,


No rest so sure.


On the World


The world's an inn and I her guest;


I eat, I drink, I take my rest.


My hostess nature does deny me nothing


Wherewith she can supply me:


The world's an inn, where having stayed a while,


I pay her lavish bills and go my way.




Fear not, my soul, to lose for want of cunning;


Weep not; heaven is not always got by running;


Thy thoughts are swift, although thy legs be slow;


True love will creep, not having strength to go.




On Death


Why should we not as well desire death as sleep?


No diff'rence but a little breath,


Tis all but rest;


Tis all but a releasing our tired limbs.


Why not alike pleasing?


Our sleep is oft' accompanied with frights,


Distracting dreams and dangers of the night.


When in the sheets of death our body's


Sure from all such evils


And we sleep secure.


In sleep we know not whether our closed


Eyes shall ever wake, from death


We're sure to rise.


Dare we trust God for nights and not for years?




Reprinted with the permission of Southern Music Publishing Co. Inc.,Copyright 1954.




Fire, Fire, Quench Desire (1959)


George Peele (1556-96)


Hot sun, cool fire,


Tempered with sweet air,


Black shade, fair nurse,


Shadow my white hair:


Shine, sun; burn, fire;


Breathe, air, and ease me;


Black shade, fair nurse,


Shroud me, and please me:


Shadow, my sweet nurse,


Keep me from burning,


Make not my glad cause


Cause of my mourning.


Let not my beauty's fire


Inflame unstaid desire,


Nor pierce any bright eye


That wandereth lightly.




Copyright 1990 by Boosey and Hawkes, Inc. in NINE SONGS AND ARIAS FOR SOPRANO AND PIANO.




The You Should of Done It Blues (1971)


Peter Viereck (1916-)


I sit here with the wind is in my hair;


I huddle like the sun is in my eyes;


I am (I wish you'd contact me) alone.


A fat lot you'd wear crepe if I was dead.


It figures, who I heard there when I phoned you;


It figures, when I came there who has went.


Dogs laugh at me, folks bark at me since then;


“She is,” they say, “no better than she ought to be.”


I love you irregardless how they talk.


You should of done it (which is no crime)


With me you should of done it, what they say.


I sit here with the wind is in my hair.




Text reprinted by permission of the copyright owner, Peter Viereck, 1967; Copyright 1973 by Boosey and Hawkes, published separately and in NINE SONGS AND ARIAS FOR SOPRANO AND PIANO.


Death by Owl-Eyes:


a history of music in 64-odd measures (1971)


Richard Hughes (1900-76)


John Fane Dingle


By Rumney Brook


Shot a crop-eared owl,


For pigeon mistook:


Caught her by the lax wing.


She, as she dies,


Thrills his warm soul through


With her deep eyes.


Corpse-eyes are eerie,


Tiger-eyes fierce:


John Fane Dingle found


Owl-eyes worse.


Owl-eyes on night-clouds,


Constant as fate;


Owl-eyes in baby's face:


On dish and plate:


Owl-eyes without sound—


Pale of hue,


John died, of no complaint,


With owl-eyes too.




Text reprinted with the permission of W. Ransom, copyright 1922 by Richard Hughes.


Copyright 1973 by Boosey and Hawkes, published separately and in NINE SONGS AND ARIAS FOR SOPRANO AND PIANO, reprinted by permission.


Cat! (1979)


John Keats (1795-1821)


Cat! who hast past thy Grand Climacteric,


How many mice and Rats hast in thy days


Destroy'd? how many tit bits stolen? Gaze


With those bright languid segments green and prick


Those velvet ears—but pr'ythee do not stick


Thy latent talons in me—and upraise


Thy gentle mew—and tell me all thy frays


Of Fish and Mice, and Rats and tender chick.


Nay look not down, nor lick thy dainty wrists


For all the weezy Asthma—and for all


Thy tail's tip is nicked off—and though the fists


Of many a Maid have given thee many a maul,


Still is that fur as soft as when the lists


In youth thou enter'dst on glass bottled wall.




Published in NINE SONGS AND ARIAS FOR SOPRANO AND PIANO by Boosey and Hawkes, copyright 1990, and reprinted by permission.


Eldorado (1951)


Edgar Allen Poe (1809-49)


Gaily bedight,


A gallant knight,


In sunshine and in shadow,


Had journeyed long,


Singing a song,


In search of Eldorado.


But he grew old—


This knight so bold—


And o'er his heart a shadow


Fell as he found


No spot of ground


That looked like Eldorado.


And, as his strength


Failed him, at length,


He met a pilgrim shadow—


“Shadow,” said he,


“Where can it be—


This land of Eldorado?”


“Over the Mountains


Of the Moon,


Down the Valley of the shadow,


Ride, boldly ride,”


The shade replied,


“If you seek for Eldorado!”




Published by Galaxy Music Corp. in AMERICAN ART SONG ANTHOLOGY, Vol. 1, copyright 1982, and reprinted by permission of Galaxy/E.C. Schirmer.






William Wordsworth (1770-1850)


From low to high doth dissolution climb,


And sink from high to low, along a scale


Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail;


A musical but melancholy chime,


Which they can hear who meddle not with crime,


Nor avarice, nor over-anxious care.


Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear


The longest date do melt like frosty rime,


That in the morning whitened hill and plain


And is no more; drop like the tower sublime


Of yesterday, which royally did wear


His crown of weeds, but could not ev'n sustain


Some casual shout that broke the silent air,


Or the unimaginable touch of Time.


Ballad: O What Is That Sound?


Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73)


O what is that sound which so thrills the ear


Down in the valley drumming, drumming?


Only the scarlet soldiers, dear,


The soldiers coming.


O what is that light I see flashing so clear


Over the distance brightly, brightly?


Only the sun on their weapons, dear,


As they step lightly.


O what are they doing with all that gear;


What are they doing this morning, this morning?


Only the usual maneuvers, dear,


Or perhaps a warning.


O why have they left the road down there,


Why are they suddenly wheeling, wheeling?


Perhaps a change in the orders, dear;


Why are you kneeling?


O haven't they stopped for the doctor's care,


Haven't they reined their horses, their horses?


Why, they are none of them wounded, dear,


None of those forces.


O is it the parson they want, with white hair;


Is it the parson, is it, is it?


No, they are passing his gateway, dear,


Without a visit.


O it must be the farmer who lives so near,


It must be the farmer, so cunning, so cunning?


They have passed the farm already, dear,


And now they are running.


O where are you going? Stay with me here!


Were the vows you swore me deceiving, deceiving?


No, I promised to love you, dear,


But I must be leaving.


O it's broken the lock and splintered the door,


O it's the gate where they're turning, turning;


Their feet are heavy on the floor


And their eyes are burning.




Poem reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.




Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)


I have desired to go


Where springs not fail,


To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail


And a few lilies blow.


And I have asked to be


Where no storms come,


Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,


And out of the swing of the sea.




Ballad: O Where Are You Going?


Wystan Hugh Auden


“O where are you going?” said reader to rider,


“That valley is fatal when furnaces burn,


Yonder's the midden whose odors will madden,


That gap is the grave where the tall return.”


“O do you imagine,” said fearer to farer,


“That dusk will delay on your path to the pass,


Your diligent looking discover the lacking


Your footsteps feel from granite to grass?”


“O what was that bird,” said horror to hearer,


“Did you see that shape in the twisted trees?


Behind you swiftly the figure comes softly,


The spot on your skin is a shocking disease.”


“Out of the house”—said rider to reader,


“Yours never will”—said farer to fearer.


“They're looking for you”—said hearer to horror,


As he left them there, as he left them there.




Poem reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.




The Listeners


Walter de la Mare (1873-1956)


“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,


Knocking on the moonlit door;


And his horse in the silence champed the grasses


Of the forest's ferny floor:


And a bird flew up out of a turret,


Above the Traveller's head:


And he smote upon the door again a second time;


“Is there anybody there?” he said.


But no one descended to the Traveller;


No head from the leaf-fringed sill


Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,


Where he stood perplexed and still.


But only a host of phantom listeners


That dwelt in the lone house then


Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight


To that voice from the world of men:


Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,


That goes down to the empty hall,


Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken


By the lonely Traveller's call.


And he felt in his heart their strangeness,


Their stillness answering his cry,


While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,


`Neath the starred and leafy sky;


For he suddenly smote on the door, even


Louder, and lifted his head:—


“Tell them I came, and no one answered,


That I kept my word,” he said.


Never the least stir made the listeners,


Though every word he spake


Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house


From the one man left awake:


Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,


And the sound of iron on stone,


And how the silence surged softly backward,


When the plunging hoofs were gone.


Poem reprinted by permission of the Literary Trustees of Walter de la Mare and The Society of Authors as their representatives. FROM A WATCHTOWER published by Boosey and Hawkes, copyright 1993, and reprinted by permission.




THREE BLAKE SONGS (1945, revised 1951 and 1992)


I Laid Me Down


William Blake (1757-1827)


I laid me down upon a bank


Where love lay sleeping.


I heard among the rushes dank


Weeping, Weeping.


Then I went to the heath and the wild


To the thistles and thorns of the waste


And they told me how they were beguiled,


Driven out, and compelled to be chaste.




Never Seek To Tell


Never seek to tell thy love


Love that never told can be;


For the gentle wind does move


Silently, invisibly.


I told my love, I told my love,


I told her all my heart,


Trembling and cold, in ghastly fears -


Ah, she doth depart.


Soon as she was gone from me


A traveller came by


Silently, invisibly -


Oh, was no deny.




I Asked A Thief


I asked a thief to steal me a peach:


He turned up his eyes.


I asked a lithe lady to lie her down:


Holy and meek she cries.


As soon as I went an angel came:


He winked at the thief


And smiled at the dame,


And without one word spoke


Had a peach from the tree,


And `twixt earnest and joke


Enjoyed the Lady.




Reprinted with the permission of Jack Beeson and Boosey and Hawkes, Inc.




TWO ARIAS (1967 and 1983)


Margret's Garden Aria (lyric by Jack Beeson)


from Lizzie Borden (libretto by Kenward Elmslie, 1929-)


In the garden the flowers wither and die.


In the garden the towers of the house and the high wall


Cast shadows at all hours; and nothing grows


in the darkness.


In the garden the stunted flowers lean toward the light.


Their petals withering,


Pale from the long night,


Yearn for the bright air, the sun's caresses;


For nothing lives in the darkness.


Is it spring? Is it fall?


The shadows lengthen, deepen, darken.


In the garden the flowers by the sunless wall


Find no light, no hope, no change of season.


Is it spring? Is it summer? Is it winter?


The seasons turn. The years grow older.


We wait in the shadows.


Time passes us by, passes us by.


Time passes us by.




Adaptation copyright 1967 by Boosey and Hawkes,


published separately and in


NINE SONGS AND ARIAS FOR SOPRANO AND PIANO, and reprinted by permission.




The Widow's Waltz


from Dr. Heidegger's Fountain of Youth


(libretto by Sheldon Harnick, 1924-)


Yonder stands a cherry tree,


Drowsing `neath a summer sky,


Yielding ripe and tender fruit


To each passerby.


See the tree in winter now


As December's veil descends;


`Neath its load of ice and snow


Each bare bough bends low.


Not a summer tree am I


Yielding only in July,


Nor a winter tree that stands


With frozen heart and empty hands.


Like an orchard I shall be.


Such a love I bear thee, dear,


Yielding love abundantly


In every season of every year.








Angela Brown has performed as soloist in opera, oratorio and recital in music ranging from the baroque to the contemporary. Her special love is chamber music and the art song, and she has become known for her dedication to American classical song. As recitalist she has performed in a variety of venues, ranging from sophisticated concert halls in New York City, to palazzi and châteaux in Italy and France, and to the more rustic churches and barns of northern New York State and Vermont. She has also been a featured artist on live radio broadcasts of Public Radio and WQXR in New York City.


In oratorio Miss Brown has appeared frequently as guest soloist with the Champlain Valley Oratorio Society and the Canterbury Choral Society in New York City. In opera she has performed with the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, the Teatro Lirico Sperimentale of Spoleto, the Opera Ensemble of New York, the Pennsylvania Opera Festival, the Liederkranz Opera, the Eastern Opera Theatre, the Lake George Opera Festival, and the Vermont Mozart Festival. She has been the recipient of several grants and awards, most notably those of the Sullivan Foundation, the Liederkranz Foundation, the American Opera Auditions, the New York Singing Teachers Association, and the Concorso Internazionale Viotti.


Ms. Brown has served on the faculties of the Crane School of Music of the State University of New York at Potsdam and the Music Program of Plattsburgh SUNY. She and her husband, writer and artist Kellum Smith, are the founders and directors of Hill and Hollow Music, a nonprofit organization presenting professional classical chamber music in rural upstate New York. They live on a 375-acre stony hill-farm in the Adirondacks, that they are slowly rehabilitating after long years of neglect.




Dixie Ross-Neill brings years of experience as a coach and pedagogue to her position as Director of Opera Studies at McGill University. Formerly on staff at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, she has become a world-recognized authority on young artist training programs, having worked with such companies as the Houston Grand Opera and the Chicago Lyric Opera, and having served as Artistic/Musical Director of the Young Artist Ensemble Program with the Nederlandse Operastichting (Amsterdam) and Director of Musical Studies for the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Program (Toronto).


A native of North Carolina and resident of new York for twelve years, Ms. Ross-Neill has appeared frequently in concert with many singers in North American and Europe, where she lived for seven years. She and her husband, William Neill, have performed as a team, and certainly they teach as a team, preparing students for careers and continuing to work with them as professionals.








Recorded at Redpath Hall, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec.


John Klepko, engineer


Mixed by Burnt Hills Studios.




Cover Art: The Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource, NY; Blake, William (1757-1827) The Sun at His Eastern Gate. Illustration to Milton's “L'Allegro.” 1816-1820. Pen and brush, black and gray ink, and watercolor. 6 3/8 x 4 13/16 inches (16.1 x 12.2 cm). Inv.:1949.4:3.


Cover Design:Bates Miyamoto Design








Fire, Fire, Quench Desire






Six Lyrics


1 Dream-Pedlary [1:56]


2 Song [1:53]


3 Who Sighs That All Dies? [1:54]


4 The Moon [1:13]


5 Time [2:36]


6 The Conclusion [1:42]


Two Millay Sonnets


7 I Shall Forget You Presently [2:53]


8 What Lips My Lips Have Kissed [3:17]


Five Songs


9 On A Spiritual Fever [1:26]


10 A Good Night [2:10]


11 On The World [:56]


12 Epigram [1:01]


13 On Death [3:10]


Miscellaneous Songs


14 Fire, Fire, Quench Desire [2:20]


15 Cat! [3:06]


16 Death By Owl-Eyes [2:22]


17 The “You Should Of Done It” Blues 2:17]


18 Eldorado [1:21]


From a Watchtower


19 Mutability [3:18]


20 Ballad: O What Is That Sound? [4:11]


21 Heaven-Haven [1:40]


22 Ballad: O Where Are You Going? [1:19]


23 The Listeners [4:30]


Three Blake Songs


24 I Laid Me Down [1:33]


25 Never Seek To Tell Thy Love [1:42]


26 I Asked A Thief [1:02]


Two Arias


27 Margret's Garden Aria [4:06]


28 The Widow's Waltz [2:29]




Total Time = 63:35