Reminiscence is based on Adela Florence Nicolson’s poem Reminiscence of Mahomed Akram from her book India’s Love Lyrics. It is a continuation of the cycle of choral pieces 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).
One of the very enjoyable aspects of composing choral and vocal music is coming across poetry that sparks an emotional response. My job then becomes understanding how the poem functions—how it uses imagery, plot, and structure to build its own world—and to breathe musical life into these elements.
Reminiscence of Mahomed Akram was one such poem about love lost, how beautiful things once shared become sources of pain and despair. Below are the final lyric and original poem for comparison:
I shall never forget you.
I shall never escape you.
The sudden thought of your face is like a wound when it comes unsought
on sweet fragrant flowers: jasmine, lilies, pale tuberose—
any one of the sweet white fragrant flowers,
flowers I used to love and lay in your hair.
Sunset is terribly sad.
I saw you stand tall against sunset’s red, against sunset’s gold.
The light wind stirred your hair as you waved farewell.
Since that day, the sunset’s red is empty, and its gold forlorn.
I cannot forget you.
What are the stars to me that sparkled about your eyes?
What are the stars that made a radiance about your hair?
I cannot escape, yet what are the stars to me?
Just little lingering sparks.
Reminiscence of Mahomed Akram
I shall never forget you, never. Never escape
Your memory woven about the beautiful things of life.
The sudden Thought of your Face is like a Wound
When it comes unsought
On some scent of Jasmin, Lilies, or pale Tuberose.
Any one of the sweet white fragrant flowers,
Flowers I used to love and lay in your hair.
Sunset is terribly sad. I saw you stand
Tall against the red and the gold like a slender palm;
The light wind stirred your hair as you waved your hand,
Waved farewell, as ever, serene and calm,
To me, the passion-wearied and tost and torn,
Riding down the road in the gathering grey.
Since that day
The sunset red is empty, the gold forlorn.
Often across the Banqueting board at nights
Men linger about your name in careless praise
The name that cuts deep into my soul like a knife;
And the gay guest-faces and flowers and leaves and lights
Fade away from the failing sense in a haze,
And the music sways
Far away in unmeasured distance….
I cannot forget—
I cannot escape. What are the Stars to me?
Stars that meant so much, too much, in my youth;
Stars that sparkled about your eyes,
Made a radiance round your hair,
What are they now?
Lingering lights of a Finished Feast,
Little lingering sparks rather,
Of a Light that is long gone out.
My lyric distills the poem to its essential imagery and plot. For example, I chose to eliminate the scene of the banquet for several reasons:
- To solidify the progression of time (implied daylight with the flowers, sunset, and finally stars at night), since banquets don’t necessarily start after sunset;
- Make the plot and setting more timeless (I suspect the last banquet I attended was nothing like the Nicolson is writing about, unless they had Holiday Inns back then…);
- Without the banquet, the text is about only two people, simplifying the cast and the plot;
- These changes also lessen the overtness of the romantic aspects of the poem, allowing the emotional sentiments to resonate with the loss of any loved one.
For similar reasons, I shortened the title down to “Reminiscence”. Of course, there are some really nice lines in what I cut, but I think overall, the effect is a more distilled poem with tighter form and more vivid emotion, and better suited to setting to music.
Although there is an overt plot (daytime with flowers, sunset waving goodbye, lamenting the stars by night), what interests me the most is the emotional journey, and this trajectory is what I develop musically.
Your Reminiscence piece was special for me. Like everyone else, I have lost people close to me. I have often envisioned their faces or their figures walking away in the glowing light of sunset. The piano part especially brought that visual to my mind.
The Opening, ms. 1 (0:00) – ms. 17 (0:52). What strikes me about the poem is the dichotomy set up between the pleasant memories of the writer’s beloved and the pain caused by these memories. This dichotomy is illustrated musically: the opening theme (through ms. 17 or 0:50) reflects the emotions of tender memories—perhaps poignant but definitely not sad. Towards the end (ms. 15, about 0:40), a very slightly ominous tone is added. After a brief pause, the next theme enters (ms. 19), based on open fifths—a very “empty” feeling figure—reflecting the present despair of the poet, as if waking up from a happy reverie, jolted back to the harsh realities of the present. The start of this theme signifies the beginning of the the narrative—the poet is now back in the present.
First Section, ms. 19 (0:52 before “I shall never forget you…”) – ms. 63 (approximately 2:25 “…lay in your hair”). Through this section, the piano alternates between the stark open voicing that rhythmically plods along (illustrating the daze that the poet finds life to be) with more active figures (e.g. starting at ms. 36 / 1:26 “…escape you”) that show the inner turmoil that the poet is trying to suppress. This pattern repeats until the remembrance forcibly takes over at ms. 46 (1:50 “…on sweet fragrant flowers”), and the choir sings the opening tender theme a cappella. Eventually, this happy remembrance yields again to despair as the piano reenters at ms. 57 (2:08 “flowers I used to love and lay in your hair”), and musically (and emotionally) we leave this section just as we started it.
Second Section, ms. 63 (2:22 before “Sunset is terribly sad”) – ms. 96 (3:32 “I cannot forget you”). This section mimics the first, but with important emotional developments. The first hint of something going wrong is the different treatment of “farewell” at ms. 77 (2:58), versus the treatment of “escape you” at ms. 35 (1:26), the parallel from the first section. This new treatment keeps building and building until the angry outburst of “Since that day, the sunset’s red is empty” at ms. 82 (3:03). The music briefly pauses, the narrator’s emotional energies temporarily drained. But then the turmoil returns, culminating in the apex of the emotional dilemma “I cannot forget you” at ms. 92 (3:24).
Third Section, ms. 96 (3:31 “What are the stars to me…”) – ms. 112 (4:03 “…yet what are the stars to me?”). This section starts with a seething anger and frustration both at the poet’s current situation and towards his beloved, which he sees everywhere, even in the stars. He simply cannot escape.
Denouement, ms 113 (4:03 “…to me?”) – the end. Here we have the crux of the matter spelled out—the narrator is now wholly focused on “look what has happened to me”. For the first time, the lover is not including his beloved in the story. The line “to me” is echoed several times, originally ms. 113 (4:05) then echoed at ms. 115 (4:09) and ms. 117 (4:13). This new reality sinks in where nothing is of interest, and even the stars are “just little lingering sparks”—distant reflections of a no longer named happiness, echoed by the piano as the embers go cold.