When Music Sounds, a composition by Sheila Bristow

I’m grateful for the opportunity to write for Orchestra Seattle|Seattle Chamber Singers! My childhood violin teacher, Eileen Lusk, was a founding member, and I grew up attending OSSCS concerts. In college, I played violin in the orchestra, and I’m delighted to now be back onstage with the group as keyboardist.

Walter De la Mare’s poem “When Music Sounds” alludes to Greek mythology about the power of music. In each of the three verses, the music summons forth a different part of the cosmos: first, nature responds; second, naiads (water nymphs) arise; and finally, time itself sings.

Thinking about Greek mythology, I imagined a sylvan setting for the poem’s action, and the piece opens with a calm “forest” theme. As the chorus sings about bourgeoning plants, the string lines rise and become more complex. This is followed by the entrance of the naiads—whom I cheekily imagine rehearsing a water ballet. After the dance break, the chorus sings them up from the forest pool, accompanied by soft winds and strings.

In the final verse, time’s arrival on the scene is heralded by an ambiguous juxtaposition of keys and colors. However, the full chorus and brass “break into distant song” in the home key, then quickly taper off as the protagonist exits the scene. The piece concludes with a reprise of the forest theme, layered with a relaxed version of the naiad’s ballet.

When Music Sounds

Walter de la Mare, 1873-1965

When music sounds, gone is the earth I know,
And all her lovely things even lovelier grow;
Her flowers in vision flame, her forest trees
Lift burdened branches, stilled with ecstasies.

When music sounds, out of the water rise
Naiads whose beauty dims my waking eyes,
Rapt in strange dreams burns each enchanted face,
With solemn echoing stirs their dwelling-place.

When music sounds, all that I was I am
Ere to this haunt of brooding dust I came;
And from Time’s woods break into distant song
The swift-winged hours, as I hasten along

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