Essays


Introduction by Donald Hall

Two arts performed together illuminate each other. A poem printed on a broadside, designed by a master, adds exquisite shape to exquisite language. The greatest poetic enhancement happens when a brilliant composer sets good poems to music. I am deeply grateful for Herschel Garfein's Mortality Mansions, where he turns my poems into song, elevating my images as Michael Slattery's golden tenor joins Dimitri Dover's brilliant pianism. The poem by my late wife, Jane Kenyon, is sung glowingly by Marnie Breckenridge.

For me, poetry has always centered on its sound. Reading poems in silence, I hear them with my mouth. Three syllables like "dark barn door" are delicious even before they turn wood- en and shadowy. When Herschel embellishes my lines by his music, he exalts one rapture by means of another. Perched in my blue chair, I am spellbound as I listen to his art transcend the language of my invention. From the first syllables to the last, maybe most gloriously in "Gold," we are swept through art's grandeur into the final achievement of unblemished silence.


The Architecture of Mortality by David Hajdu

With Mortality Mansions, a song cycle in eleven parts, the poet Donald Hall and the composer Herschel Garfein have done more than make a work of boldly complicated, thrillingly emotive literary/musical art. They have performed a public service, providing the audience of the 21st century with an alternative narrative of eros and aging - a subversively nuanced and humane conception that defies the gauzy tropes of Viagra ads and the defensive naughtiness of "old-people sex" jokes in pop entertainment from Golden Girls to Grace and Frankie. In a culture obsessed with sexuality and youth, Hall and Garfein grant us the gift of considering late life as real life, in the full richness of its complexities, its pleasures, its trials, and its anguishes.

The work, though derived from the text of a small selection of poems written over the course of Hall's six-decade-long career, was conceived as a song cycle by Garfein and given form, performed, and recorded under Garfein's ardent and exacting stewardship. As Hall has explained, "What people will experience as Mortality Mansions does not resemble a book of poems or a program of poems. It has a kind of wholeness of its own. It is something I had not had in mind when I wrote the poems. It has a wholeness I could never have anticipated or predicted."

The quality of unity that Donald Hall has found unexpectedly in Mortality Mansions emerged slowly, over time, as Herschel Garfein delved into and experimented with Hall's poetry. Garfein, in addition to his well-known work as a respected contemporary composer (the opera Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), librettist (the opera Elmer Gantry, for which Garfein and composer Robert Aldridge shared a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition), and director, also teaches a graduate seminar in Script Analysis at the New York University/Steinhardt School of Music and Performing Arts. He understands writing of many kinds, as a practitioner of multiple creative arts as well as an educator. Still, he found himself taken aback by the thematic breadth, the earthy candor, and sheer carnality that he found when he gave Hall's work his close attention, at the suggestion of a friend.

"Like a lot of people, I suppose, I had a limited understanding of what his work is about, based on the way he is generally described - that is, as a New Hampshire poet, a rural poet in the mold of Robert Frost, with whom he had apparently studied when he was young. He didn't sound particularly interesting to me," Garfein recalls. Reading through the judiciously curated Hall collection White Apples and the Taste of Stone (2006), he thought, "Wow - everything I've heard about this man's work is pretty unfair. For somebody as well known and respected as he is, this man is not well understood at all."

Donald Hall, 89 at the time of this album's release, has been writing poetry since his teens in the 1940s and had his first collection of poems, Exiles and Marriages, published in 1955, three years before Herschel Garfein was born. By virtue of both his prolificacy and longevity, he has produced a full bookcase of works in many forms: more than 20 collections of poetry, a dozen-plus books for young readers, several memoirs, books of essays, plays, short story collections, a few biographies, and a couple of textbooks. They include enough works with nature and rural life at their heart to explain the widespread perception of Hall as a poet of the bucolic. The Library of Congress, in its announcement of Hall's appointment as Poet Laureate in June 2006, quoted former Laureate Billy Collins categorizing Hall as falling in "the Frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet" and made a point to note that Hall lived "on an old family farm in rural New Hampshire, in the house where his grandmother and his mother were born."

Among the surprises Garfein found in Hall's poetry was abounding evidence that Hall has often been less interested in acts of birth, wherever they have taken place, than he has been in the act of conception. "He's brilliantly horny - or he has been in so much of his poetry, particularly his late work," Garfein notes, drawing special attention to the robust body of poems Hall wrote during or in memory of his 20-year marriage to poet Jane Kenyon, who died in 1995.

With its first piece, 1 "When the Young Husband," Mortality Mansions immerses the listener in the world of Donald Hall's mind, heart, and body, a sphere where the three states of being tend to coexist in tenuous equilibrium, but sometimes clash with destructive force. Garfein sets up the song's theme of treacherous carnal impulse with a finger-snapping Rat Pack motif, played with wry surety by the pianist Dimitri Dover, and the singer Michael Slattery brings a subtly unsettling dose of male bravura to the song's story of a newly married man on his way to an afternoon tryst that, in the end, damages several lives.

With the second piece, 2 "When I Was Young," the cycle shifts into the present tense and dives into the themes of ardor and eros, commitment and loss, in its aging characters. "When I was young and sexual/I looked forward to a cool Olympian age/for release from my obsessions," Slattery sings with the plaintive clarity that distinguishes him as one of the most artfully communicative singers of contemporary concert music. "At sixty," he continues, "the body's one desire/sustains my pulse, not to mention/my groin...

Let us pull back the blanket,
     slide off our bluejeans,
assume familiar positions,
and celebrate lust in Mortality Mansions.

Garfein had been toying with various titles for the cycle until, after he had several of the songs finished, he woke up one night with the final words of "When I Was Young" echoing in his head. " 'Mortality Mansions' - that captures it all, the whole essence of the piece," says Garfein. "It's about sex and romance and bereavement, the joy in living day to day with someone you are entwined with in the deepest ways - emotionally, intellectually, and physically - knowing, all the while, that death could be around the corner and will, finally, come. The image of that final phrase from 'When I Was Young' suggests both grandeur and a sense of inevitable decline. Knowing that the decline is inevitable and, in some ways, already here, only enhances the intensity of the moment and the importance of enjoying it."

Approaching sixty himself at the time he began this project and with parents (the actor Carroll Baker and the director Jack Garfein) well into their eighties, Garfein was viscerally drawn to the theme of mortality; and happily married to the educator Vicki Bernstein for nearly 20 years, he felt he "had a good idea of what Donald Hall derived from his deep connection with Jane Kenyon." Compelled by the thematic content, Garfein found the vernacular clarity of Hall's writing suitable to setting to music.

"I love poetry, but I don't think a lot of it works well set to music, and sometimes the very best poetry works very badly," Garfein says. "It doesn't need any help from music. A problem with a fair amount of art songs based on poetry is that the music is not only unnecessary, it does a certain damage to the poetry by imposing a layer of pretentiousness to it. In art song these days, there's way too much art - or 'artiness' - and not enough song.

"One of the things that appealed to me immediately about Donald Hall's work is the simplicity and directness of the writing - the unfussiness of it. It has the naturalness of spoken language, along with wonderful subtlety and elegance. It stands on its own, but lends itself well to music." That is to say, Hall's poetry, much like Hall in life, gives itself welcomingly, generously, to empathetic partnership.

With the purpose of making a seriously ambitious work of musical art spared of despoiling "artiness," Garfein employed his impressive creative resources with imagination, meticulous precision, restraint, good taste, and no interest in ever sounding impressive. The song craft in this work is nothing short of masterly, but applied with unyielding rigor in service to the material. There are strains of Schubert in 10 "Freezes and Junes," a wrenchingly sad song whose sadness Garfein evokes, as Schubert might, in a major key (D). There's a hint of Debussy in the sprightly lyricism of 5 "Fete." Throughout each song, in fact, there are moments of virtuosic musical invention that never draw attention to their virtuosity: the cinematic over-cranking effect of the music for the passage about driving slowly past an accident scene in 4 "The Green Shelf"; the highly nuanced attention to line endings in 9 "Deathwork"; the counter-intuitive shifts in registers for the alternating points of view in 8 "Dying Is Simple, She Said"; the climax of 7 "Summer Kitchen," when the focal character (Jane Kenyon) announces, "It's ready now," and Garfein undergirds the scene with a simple triad in an unexpected key (A-flat); the medieval-sounding figure in 11 "Gold" that Garfein slips in as an allusion in "When I Was Young"; and enough more like this to titillate a musicologist without rattling a lay listener such as Donald Hall, who calls himself a "total ignoramus about music."

To serve both the unaffected expressiveness and the understated complexity of this work, Garfein called upon a singer, Michael Slattery, and a pianist, Dimitri Dover, esteemed for their communicative powers and dedication to emotional connectedness. Slattery, who has sung new music as well as repertoire extensively with orchestras worldwide, drew upon his actorly skill to give voice to work specific to the experience of a much older man. "I may seem an unconventional choice for these poems about love and loss after sixty," Slattery says. "But my approach to song tends to be unique among singers, as Herschel understands. I typically begin my work by focusing on the words, rather than the music, and finding a way to bring clarity and honesty to the narrative. To do that well, you need more than personal experience. It requires a rich imagination and an even richer understanding of your own humanity. That's what I've tried to do here."

Dimitri Dover, a staff pianist and assistant conductor for the Metropolitan Opera with deep experience in concert vocal music, was immediately struck by the expressive range of Garfein's piano writing for this cycle. "These songs run a very wide gamut of emotions and styles and textures," Dover says, "and they have a virtuosity that is sometimes apparent and sometimes understated. The musical influences and references vary from early American patriotic songs to Prokofiev to Las Vegas lounge music. It's sometimes challenging to play, but all very satisfying."

As a capstone to Mortality Mansions, the music on this album concludes with a setting by Garfein of a poem by Jane Kenyon, sung by the soprano Marnie Breckenridge, with Dimitri Dover on piano. The poem, 23 "Otherwise," is one of Kenyon's best-known and most moving: a paean to the precious quotidian pleasures of life while we're still living, with acute awareness that things could be, and soon will be, otherwise. Breckenridge, a longtime admirer of Kenyon's poetry, sings the piece with knowing sensitivity, caressing the delicate lines about having breakfast, walking the dog, working, and lying in bed with her mate, an unnamed Donald Hall.

"I had read 'Otherwise' as a poem before, but I don't think I fully appreciated its depth until I sang it," Breckenridge says. "It seems very simple, but it's profoundly deep. To sing it, I had to peel away layer after layer until I got to the core and sang in an almost spoken way - not at all operatic."

Ending this album with the voice of Jane Kenyon serves as reminder of Kenyon's presence throughout Mortality Mansions. Created by Hall and Garfein, it is largely about Kenyon, a great American poet whose own stature is undiminished by her impact on Hall throughout and well past their years together.

Mortality Mansions was first performed, in an early iteration of eight parts, in a concert by Slattery and Dover that Garfein oversaw in a school down the road from that farmhouse where Hall's grandmother and mother were born and Hall still lives. Hall took part in the event, reading the poems in the cycle, much as he has done in the second portion of this recording. At the conclusion of the evening, Garfein drove Hall back to his house. Hall, weary from the undertaking, sat silently through the ride. Garfein pulled into the farmhouse drive and turned off the car, and Hall, looking straight ahead, said, "I wish Jane could have seen this."


David Hajdu is the author of Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, Love for Sale: Pop Music in America, and other books. Three-time winner of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for music writing, he is music critic for The Nation and professor at Columbia University.

The Architecture of Mortality
© 2018 David Hajdu