SSATB a cappella
Text by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
Why each is striving, from of old,
To love more deeply than he can?
Still would be true, yet still grows cold?
Ask of the Powers that sport with man!
They yok’d in him, for endless strife,
A heart of ice, a soul of fire;
And hurl’d him on the Field of Life,
An aimless unallay’d Desire.
When I first read the poem Destiny by the British literary figure Matthew Arnold, around ten years ago, I felt deeply affected – almost as if the ground had been swept from under me. I was astonished at the magnitude of philosophical questions and implications that arise from a text this short: Are we really nothing more than puppets, “hurled” onto “the field of life” and filled with “unallayed desires” by “powers” that merely sport with us? I’ve always been a spiritual person at my core, struggling with various degrees of agnosticism; but, Destiny made me truly consider the possibility of forces that created us as we are and then left us to evolve and fend for ourselves in an imperfect world. What are we to do with our many conflicting emotions and temperaments? Is there any use trying to deal with the human condition? Or are we trapped as are, without real control over our fate?
In an attempt to grapple with this poem and its effect on me, I created a choral setting for it after my freshman year of college and then didn’t revisit it for the next two years. When I found it again in late 2015, I realized that my harmonic language had changed and felt compelled to set it to music once again. I focused on finding chords and melodic movements that musically echo how I feel when pondering the philosophical implications of the poem. For example, on the words, “why each is striving” and “an aimless, unallay’d desire,” there is little harmonic change, but each line pushes up and down, striving for something unknown, yet not finding it... which serves as my attempt to capture the detached sadness I experience when reading those words. Resolution is also delayed on the word “still:” staggered entrances capitalize on the percussive “st” sound, but the chords hover in clusters of notes that are dissonant and stationary. Furthermore, I aimed to create a musical highpoint on the words “hurl’d him on the field of life” by bringing all voices upward through several dissonant and harmonically-lush chords. By doing so, I wanted to reflect my reading of the poem: this is the most powerful line in Destiny – since it is the culmination of what the “powers” have done to us – and it therefore deserves the most powerful, awe-inspiring music of the whole piece.