John Corigliano: Fern Hill

Setting the Poem by Dylan Thomas, from Deaths And Entrances (1946)

NEA Festival: American Masterpieces
8 p.m. Saturday, March 3, 2007
VMA Arts and Cultural Center, Providence

Andrew Clark, conductor

The Providence Singers

Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, mezzo-soprano

About the Composer

John Corigliano

John Corigliano by Carol Cleere
(by permission of the artist; all rights reserved)

John Corigliano was born February 16, 1938, in New York City, into a musically accomplished family. (His mother played piano; his father was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic during the Bernstein years.) He studied composition at Columbia University and at the Manhattan School of Music and worked as assistant to the director on Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts.

Corigliano came to prominence in 1964 with the première of his Sonata for Violin and Piano at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Italy. Known predominantly for his orchestral work, he has composed three symphonies, concerti for several instruments, works for band, chamber music for a variety of ensembles, a number of film scores and one opera, The Ghosts of Versailles (1991). His work has received the major awards for composition, including the Grawemeyer Award for his Symphony No.1 (1991), the Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra (2001), and an Oscar (Best Original Score) for The Red Violin (Le Violon rouge) in 1999, a score he expanded into his first violin concerto.

John Corigliano and Dylan Thomas

John Corigliano

Corigliano came to the work of Dylan Thomas early in his career, shortly after graduating from college. A singer friend had asked him to set the well known “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” Thomas’s elegy on the death of his father. Corigliano read Thomas’s Collected Poems – a revelation, as he has described it – and chose rather to set “Fern Hill.” It was one of his earliest choral settings.

Corigliano found that “Fern Hill” and other works by Thomas came to have an almost autobiographical meaning for him. “I was questioning both the way I composed (why did I limit myself to standard notation? to received forms? to forced choice among “isms”?) and the way I lived (why has so much of what I wanted brought me so little joy?),” Corigliano wrote in notes for his A Dylan Thomas Trilogy (1960-1976, revised 1999). “A return to Thomas revealed that my life crises continued to unfold in eerie synchronicity with the poet’s own.”

In fact, Corigliano revised “Fern Hill” several times, setting it originally for his high school music teacher, Mrs. Bella Tillis, who introduced the work in 1960 with the school choir of which Corigliano had once been a member, accompanied by piano. Other settings followed, including the orchestral work performed in this concert and the work’s eventual inclusion as a movement in his A Dylan Thomas Trilogy. In the final revision of that larger work, “Fern Hill” was reworked for a boy soprano.

“But at last A Dylan Thomas Trilogy feels complete to me,” Corigliano wrote in his notes. “I am grateful not only to the Welsh genius who has meant so much to me, but to the many artists and performing organizations over these past 40 years who have brought his and my work to life. I only hope that this music and these marvelous words can give back to an audience some small measure of what they have given me.”

Text of Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
   The night above the dingle starry,
      Time let me hail and climb
   Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
      Trail with daisies and barley
   Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
   In the sun that is young once only,
      Time let me play and be
   Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
      And the sabbath rang slowly
   In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
   And playing, lovely and watery
      And fire green as grass.
   And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
   Flying with the ricks, and the horses
      Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
   Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
      The sky gathered again
   And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
   Out of the whinnying green stable
      On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
   In the sun born over and over,
      I ran my heedless ways,
   My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
   Before the children green and golden
      Follow him out of grace.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
   In the moon that is always rising,
      Nor that riding to sleep
   I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
      Time held me green and dying
   Though I sang in my chains like the sea.