Toward No Earthly Pole

ENS.2017.3 | 15+’
Mezzo-soprano, Tenor & 4 Piccolos/Alto Flutes, 4 Percussion, String Quartet


I. Bronte

II. Keats

III. Tennyson

Completed almost exactly two centuries to the day after John Keats sent a letter to his brother George Keats describing Captain Ross’s recent journey to the far regions of the globe, my work Toward No Earthly Pole sets three Victorian texts about the Arctic for an unusual ensemble of two voices with quartets of flutes, percussion, and strings.

Beginning with the marvelous opening of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in which we find Jane escaping from her awful aunt and cousin in the leaves of Bewick’s “History of British Birds,” immediately we are plunged into a frozen landscape of “naked, melancholy isles,” “forlorn regions of dreary space—that reservoir of frost and snow,” in which “two ships becalmed on a torpid sea, I believed to be marine phantoms.” Sung by the mezzo-soprano, the music is hard and glittering, with rich alto flutes suggesting the melodic warmth of Jane’s personality.

Next, to a clangorous accompaniment of pounding drums and shrieking piccolos, the tenor declaims the text of John Keats’s letter of 18 December 1818, a description of John Ross’s arctic expedition as related by Keats’s friend, the painter Benjamin Haydon. 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 nineteenth century imperialist racism as he singles out the native Inuit as “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 sing Tennyson’s magnificent epitaph for the nobly ignoble Sir John Franklin, leader of the greatest failure in all Victorian arctic exploration, as Toward No Earthly Pole reaches its dramatic conclusion.