How we and Robert Burns find music


The singers settle into seats, leaving a small group to sing a lament for a ship trapped in ice off northern Canada.

I am sitting on a wooden bench, listening to the close voices and remembering when I heard them first. Fifteen-odd years ago, they sang I love my love because I know my love loves me in a college hall, and I knew them all by name. When I was a student reading "Persuasion" for my college thesis, the alums conducting now were students too, and they were collecting Renaissance lyrics, Eastern European lullabies and spirituals.

The Elizabethans are singing their 20th reunion concert. When I knew them, they collected songs the way a child collects leaves. They learned old music and composed their own and played with the sound, told jokes with it, fell in love with it. Five years ago, Daniel Rosensweig told me they find music in libraries, on recordings and online. (He was then a student director and is now an alum, the red-haired man singing high tenor in this four-part drinking song.)

The current Elizabethans will go back to their winter study to sing in the dining halls, learning songs over their iPhones and in common rooms the way Robert Burns learned them in pubs.

Friday is Burns' 254th birthday. He is the informal national poet of Scotland, toasted centuries after his death -- but in his lifetime, he was an Ayrshire farmer's son with little schooling. He made a name for himself, while he lived, by collecting folk songs.

He said that he often wrote his own poetry, too, to music. When he needed a prompt, he would thin of an old song and set words in its rhythm. It's as though you took the tune of Simple Gifts as a guide, and wrote new words:

Will you come to the mountains,

will you come home to me,

where the sun lies bare on sleeping maple trees?

On a new winter morning when the light falls clear,

we'll raise a glass to the coming year.

Imagine him traveling to collect folk music for the collections he helped to edit. Imagine the feeling that music lives on the land, and one who knows where to look can gather it like winterberries.

I remember leaving a college dining room to spill with friends into the dorm while they sang musicals around me, and someone improvised accompaniment on a keyboard, and someone lamented the scarcity of good bass parts. (I'm not a singer -- I only love spontaneous ballads.) I remember the alum conducting the finale to the ‘Bethans concert when she sang solo in this same room with the concert choir, and her soprano rode over the whole collected chorus.

She told me that since then she has set some of Jane Hirshfield's poetry to music, and she is writing the libretto to an opera. And I remember the morning we polkaed barefoot to the contradance band in reading period, running on two hours' sleep, when she played trumpet and carried wild passion fruit in her lunch box. I wish us both that momentum.


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