Fresh eyes on "Ophelia Songs"

This Saturday, the Western Washington University Concert Choir will perform my “Ophelia Songs” as part of their program for the NW division conference of the American Choral Directors Association. I figure this is a good opportunity to go into a bit more depth about the background of the piece and my process in writing it. 

First, a synopsis more-or-less copied from my original program notes: 

The "songs" of Ophelia Songs are taken from among Ophelia’s lines in Act IV of Hamlet. This odd assortment of verses are ostensibly real folk-songs, that Shakespeare has given Ophelia to sing as she goes mad. Just prior to this, Hamlet, violently moody title character and lover of Ophelia, has both killed Ophelia’s father (perhaps in a fit of madness, himself) and departed Denmark for England. When Ophelia enters in Act IV, she has noticeably begun to lose touch with reality—instead of conversing with the King and Queen she sings snippets of folk-songs and spouts nonsensical utterances. Her grasp slips further as time goes on, especially as her brother enters and she does not recognize him. After a particularly touching scene where she hands out imaginary flowers to the characters present, she sings the last two stanzas below, and leaves. The next we hear about her—not even a scene later—is that she has drowned in the brook, after making herself “fantastick garlands...Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples”.

Here are the song texts, in the order they’re sung: 

How should I your true love know
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
And his sandal shoon.

He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.

They bore him barefac'd on the bier;
And on his grave rain many a tear,—

Fare you well, my dove!

You must sing, Down-a-down, call him a-down-a.

To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I, a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine!

And will he not come again?
And will he not come again?
No, no, he is dead,
Gone to his death-bed,
He never will come again.

His beard was white as snow,
All flaxen was his poll:
He is gone, he is gone,
And we cast away moan:
Heaven 'a mercy on his soul!

To me, these verses were immediately touching. This is a woman (girl, really) who has lost all the things she cares most about. She has no anchor to the world anymore. This being the case, she let's go of reality. As she sings, we are left to wonder whether she is singing about her experiences, or whether the words are simply bubbling up from her past—when she sings “He is gone”, is she talking about her father? Or is this song just floating from her subconscious through her lips? Perhaps somewhere in between. 

In addition to this mysterious and almost spooky otherworldliness, the lines also have an inherent musicality. Whether these were existing folk songs that Shakespeare would have known, or lines he made up to fit the genre, I don't know. They certainly have the right feel! I find endless fascination in folk traditions the world over—be they in India, in Russia, right here in America, or, in this case, in England. While Hamlet is set in Denmark, Shakespeare was decidedly English, and his characters seem to be English too, no matter where the plays were set. With how well Ophelia’s lines and couplets fit into the general nature of the English folk repertoire, it was fairly easy for me to dream up melodies that could have fit with them as a song in Shakespeare’s time. Perhaps they would have been sung by a passing farmer on his way from the fields, as Ophelia sat by the brook weaving flowers together. Before everything fell apart... 

The first two stanzas come in the dorian mode, and in 6/8 time—a slow lilt as sounds from Ophelia’s past begin to come out of the mist. The third melody, also in dorian, is a meterless flowing chant, moving into a still-flowing choral texture. After this is where, in my mind, Ophelia departs from simple out-of-touch-ness to violent mood swings. The line “You must sing down-a-down” comes in an oddly angry canonic texture, with no particular key or direction. Following is a sullenly depressed piano interlude, then, as Ophelia has another memory, a sprightly Valentine’s song—happy, albeit in several keys at once (interesting to note that St. Valentine’s Day was already celebrated in the 1600’s! This song gets increasingly “inappropriate” in the verses I left out). 

At this point, I envision a change within Ophelia. Having been through this much torment, all within her own mind, she gives up. There’s nothing in the play to say as much, but somewhere between her days as the young girl she was and her death in the river at her own hands, there must have come the decision that she no longer wanted to inhabit this earth. Her ascent to the breaking point is played out in the piano. The chorus, which has been articulating the more conscious of her thoughts, has nothing left to add to the whirlwind of a shattering Ophelia. By the time the dust settles, we are left with a character who is more dead than alive, and has only a few parting words to say before she removes herself from the stage.

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