Toward No Earthly Pole (2023)

ENS.2023.1 | 22′
Mezzo-soprano, Tenor,


I. Brontë

II. Keats

III. Tennyson

Toward No Earthly Pole

Toward No Earthly Pole is part of an ongoing project in which I attempt to reclaim earlier, failed compositions by rewriting them for orchestra. I call the resulting works “palimpsests”—an admittedly pretentious, overused word which, nevertheless, exactly describes my approach. By overwriting the unsuccessful prototypes, only what still seemed good about them in the first place remains. In this case, the faintly ridiculous original instrumentation of flute quartet, percussion quartet, and string quartet was discarded in favor of a small orchestra, with unidiomatic, even unplayable material removed and replaced with enriched textures, some icy and brittle, some more forceful and bold, as suggested by the frigid texts.

First completed almost exactly two centuries to the day after John Keats posted a letter to his brother George Keats describing Captain Ross’s contemporaneous journey to the far regions of the globe, my work Toward No Earthly Pole sets three famous Victorian texts about the Arctic that so fascinated 19th century Britain, in movements successively each about half the length of their predecessor.

We begin with the mezzo-soprano essaying the marvelous opening of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in which Jane escapes her awful aunt and cousin amidst the leaves of Thomas Bewick’s ‘History of British Birds.’ Plunged into a frozen landscape of “naked, melancholy isles,” Jane visits “forlorn regions of dreary space—that reservoir of frost and snow,” where she beholds “two ships becalmed on a torpid sea, I believed to be marine phantoms.”

Next, to a clangorous accompaniment of pounding percussion and shrieking piccolos, the tenor declaims an excerpt from John Keats’s letter of 18 December 1818, a description of John Ross’s recent arctic expedition. Amidst a bright cubist accompaniment evoking icebergs, he speaks of the ship “entirely surrounded with vast mountains and crags of ice,” the men “fatigued with the eternal dazzle and whiteness,” indulges in some uncomfortable imperialist racism as he calls the native Inuit “the most wretched of beings,” before finding his way to the joy of the sailors as they see the stars once more.

Finally, the mezzo and tenor join together to conclude Toward No Earthly Pole by singing a grotesque, bloated parody of Tennyson’s grandiloquent epitaph for the nobly ignoble Sir John Franklin, failed leader of the greatest disaster in all Victorian arctic exploration.