Fraley’s The Plains is an unaccompanied SATB choral setting of Adela Florence Nicolson’s poem by the same name. It is part of a cycle of choral pieces entitled India’s Love Lyrics that includes Golden Stars (F. 150), Wistful Wind (F. 152), The Plains (F. 154), Lost Delight (F. 157), Famine Song (F. 164), and Reminiscence (F. 166).
The Plains is the third choral piece I’ve written based on poetry by Adela Florence Nicolson from a book of her poetry entitled India’s Love Lyrics published in the United States in 1906. (Golden Stars and Wistful Wind are the other two.) All three pieces are united harmonically, based on successions of pentatonic chords, which I’ll describe in more detail later. Several compositional elements differentiate The Plains from the other songs in this cycle, including its use of meter and its extensive use of word painting.
The Plains is an exploration of meter. Golden Stars employs one extreme, where meter is non-existent; Wistful Wind is a highly metric piece. The Plains seeks a middle ground, where its chant-like rhythms are accurately (and arguably pedantically) notated using traditional time signatures, similar to Duruflé’s use of time signatures in his Requiem. As such, the metric stresses and the word stresses align perfectly. This freedom of rhythmic expression supports the extensive use of word painting.
Nicolson’s imagery and sense of longing attracted me to this poem, and the music is built around this imagery. Word painting is a common compositional technique—when one word paints, one makes the music directly illustrate a word’s meaning, such as increasing in pitch for the word “up”, or using an unexpected chord for the word “mistake”. One could even say that word painting is the composer’s version of poetic imagery, and as such, I felt this poem lent itself to extensive word painting treatment. Let’s look at a few concrete examples.
The piece opens with a word painting of “wide horizons”: the entire first line of music is built from the single pitch B—the first five notes are all B, and the melody does not stray far from this pitch. This helps illustrate this flat, plain, unbroken horizon of which the poem speaks. Even more specifically, the word “wide” is nearly three beats long—significantly longer (i.e. “wider”) than any other. Also, the word “sea” receives a rolling wave-like melodic treatment—although it must not stray far since the sea is part of this “wide horizon” (it settles back down to a sustained B in the next measure). This line also illustrates the limits of word painting—I could have used only the pitch B on this first line, and arguably that would even more literally illustrate “wide horizons”—but it would do so at the severe cost of losing other essential elements of the music (melody and direction come to mind).
In these measures we have three distinct word paintings. First, there is the upward melodic gesture from the low “sea line” to the high “sky-line”. The second occurs at the word “joined”, where sopranos and altos (the “sky-line”) join tenors and basses (the “sea line”), singing the same notes in octaves. Finally, the harmonization drastically simplifies on the word “clear”—each pitch in the chord for the syllable “-line” is a half-step from the pitch it resolves to in the D# major chord for “clear”.
By my count (and not including repeated uses such as the many occurrences of “wide” being set to a long note), there are approximately 25 distinct “word paintings” contained within The Plains. Can you find them all?
As I mentioned earlier, each of the poems I set from India’s Love Songs share the same harmonic language based upon pentatonic chords. In the key of C, the pentatonic scale is a five-note scale containing the notes C D E G A (or generically 1 2 3 5 6 from any major scale); it may also be more explicitly named the major pentatonic scale. This scale is very common, not just in our classical and popular music, but also in cultures not influenced by Western music.
A (major) pentatonic chord, then, is a chord consisting of all five notes of a major pentatonic scale. So a C-pentatonic chord is some inversion or arrangement of the tones C D E G A. Of course you can build a pentatonic chord based on any root, for example, a D-pentatonic chord would be spelled D E F# A B. Golden Stars is built nearly exclusively from major pentatonic chords. Where non-pentatonic tones are encountered, they are treated as non-harmonic tones, usually as suspensions.
Harmonic motion, then, involves moving from one pentatonic chord to another. Because of the constant presence of the “extra” degrees (2 and 6) not found in a major chord, progressions of pentatonic chords tend to have very different affects than similar major/minor chord progressions. For example, a V-I major chord progression has a very strong harmonic motion, sharing only 1 pitch (of three), while a Vp-Ip (“p” stands for pentatonic) chord progression has a very weak harmonic motion, and shares 4 (of five) pitches! Thus pentatonic chords create very different harmonic tendencies than do the familiar major/minor chords. Yet the resulting harmony is still easy to follow and offers plenty that sounds familiar.
While Golden Stars is built from major pentatonic chords, Wistful Wind is built primarily from minor pentatonic chords, which I define to be 1 2 3-flat 5 6-flat. (Note that this definition is different than a textbook definition of a minor pentatonic scale—but I won’t go into that here.) So a C minor pentatonic chord is spelled C D E-flat G A-flat. Minor pentatonic chords tie together differently than major pentatonic chords. For example, vp-ip shares only 3 (of five) pitches, compared to Vp-Ip which shares 4. And because of the uneven distribution of half- and whole-steps, at least two pitches must change at every chord change, creating a less restful sound.
The Plains uses primarily major pentatonic chords, but also takes advantage of minor pentatonic chords, which creates a broader color palette, and is especially useful for word painting.
The Poem and Structure
Very often, one sets a poem to music with virtually no changes to the poetry. In the case of The Plains, however, I made several edits to original poem before setting it to music—subtle changes that make the poem much stronger than the original. The structure of the music is based on this revised version.
How one loves these wide horizons, whether Desert or Sea:
vague, vast, infinite, and faintly clear.
Surely, hid in the far away unknown “There”,
lie the things so longed for and found not, found not Here.
Only where some passionate, level land
stretches itself in reaches of golden sand,
Only where the sea line is joined to the sky-line clear,
beyond the curve of ripple or white foamed crest—
Only There shall my weary eyes,
distressed by the broken skies,
broken by Minaret, mountain, or towering tree—
Only There shall my weary eyes be assuaged, be assuaged and rest.
When you listen to The Plains, notice how each musical phrase begins with the same rhythm and similar melody (“How one loves…”, “Surely, hid…”, “Only where…”, “Only where…”, “Only There…”, “Only There…”). This is the primary musical structure. Each line then develops musically in a way that supports the meaning of the text—I discussed some examples of this above.
Eventually, we arrive at a very important part of the poem, the first “Only There”. This point initially appears to be the conclusion of the poem—if the first line “How one loves these wide horizons” is the antecedent, then “Only There…” appears to be the consequence. But it is not! However, now the poet has your attention, and she takes you on one last important detour before the final conclusion of the poem.
I pull the same trick musically. Initially, it seems like the music set to the first “Only There” is going to be conclusive—we’ve arrived at an important major (and non-pentatonic) chord (as the result of a V/V – V – I harmonic progression), however, we are still in the wrong key (F# instead of G)! When used in a sonata form, this is called a false return—we are purposely misled into thinking we are at the end of the piece when we are not. This fake ending, however, also provides an extra dose of satisfaction when we eventually do arrive—our ears can also “be assuaged and rest”!
To help choirs prepare, here are several recordings of The Plains. Please note that your director will likely choose different tempos, and conduct tempo changes differently than on these recordings. These recordings are not authoritative, but rather are a useful aid for learning notes and for getting a feel for the piece. As always, keep one eye up and follow your director!
Note that in some of these recordings (i.e. the Soprano only, Alto only, etc.), long rests are shortened to about 3 seconds.
Please note that these recordings are protected by copyright—please do not post them to other web sites, and if you wish to link to these recordings, please link to this page, not directly to the MP3 file. If you’ve purchased an adequate number of octavos for your group, you may burn an audio CD with the relevant tracks for your members to use in preparing the music.