Robert Tannahill: "The Gentle Weaver Poet"
Robert Tannahill was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1774, and died in 1810 at age 36.
He is primarily known for his numerous songs, some of which have entered the folk
repertoire, and are still performed today. Most of these were lyrics written to extant
melodies, and lyrics for which his friends often supplied music. A younger contemporary
and a great admirer of Robert Burns, Tannahill founded one of the first Burns societies,
writing a number of anniversary odes to commemorate Burns’ birthday. He achieved
some fame during his life as a songwriter, but was known as a gentle and retiring
man, who had in him "no grain of self assertion." Later in his life he
was given to deep depressions that led him to attempt to destroy his work, and to
drown himself in despair. The texts of the songs here were adapted from The Songs
and Poems of Robert Tannahill, published in 1911 by J. and R. Parlane, Paisley, with
John Menzies and Co., Edinburgh and Glasgow, and Houlston and Co., London. (The two
small quotations used to describe Tannahill in this brief note were taken from Alexander
Reekie’s biographical introduction to that edition.) Some of the adaptations to the
texts were made in order to translate Scots dialect words which would be opaque to
many listeners, while others were, in the spirit of the folk process, made to suit
the expressive, musical, and textual needs of the current interpreter. --Evan Chambers
Three Tannahill Songs
text by Robert Tannahill (1774-1810)
(adapted by Evan Chambers)
The Poor Bowlman’s Remonstrance
Through winter snow and summer heat,
I earn my scanty fare;
From morn ^Ìtill night, along the street,
I cry my earthen ware.
O let compassion sway your souls!
And mock not that decrepitude
Which draws me from my solitude
To cry my plates and bowls.
From thoughtless youth I often brook
The trick of taunt and scorn,
And though indiff’rence marks my look,
My heart with grief is torn.
Then, O let pity sway your souls!
Nor sneer contempt when passing by’
Nor mock derisive while I cry:
"Come buy my plates and bowls!"
The potter moulds the passive clay
To all the forms you see;
And that same hand which hath form’d you
Has likewise fashion’d me.
But O, let kindness sway your souls!^Ë
Though needy, poor as poor can be,
I stoop not to your charity,
But cry, "Come buy my plates and bowls."
"The above was written on seeing the boys plaguing
little Johnnie the Bowlman, while some who
thought themselves men were reckoning it excellent
sport." &endash; Tannahill
Fill, Fill the Merry Bowl
Fill, fill the merry bowl,
Come drown corrosive care and sorrow,
Why, why clog the soul
By caring for to-morrow?
Fill up your glasses, toast to your lasses,
Blithe Anacreon bids you live;
True love with friendship far surpasses
All of the pleasures life can give.
Ring, ring the evening bell,
The merry dirge of care and sorrow,
Why leave them life to tell
Their heavy tales to-morrow?
Come join the social glee,
And give the reins to festive pleasure;
While fancy, light and free,
Come dancing to the measure.
True love and wit, with all the graces,
Revel around in fairy ring;
Smiling joy adorns our faces,
While with jocund hearts we sing.
Now, since our cares are drowned,
In spite of what the sages tell us,
Old Time, in all his round,
Ne’er saw such happy fellows.
Now Winter, Wi’ His Cloudy Brow
Now winter, with his cloudy brow,
is far beyond the mountains
And spring reveals her azure sky
reflected in the fountains.
Soon on the budding hawthorn bank
she spread her early blossom
And woos the mirly-breasted birds
to nestle in her bosom.
O let us leave the town my love,
and seek our country dwelling,
Where waving woods and spreading flowers
on every side are smiling^Ë
We’ll tread again the daisied green
where first your beauty moved me,
We’ll trace again the woodland scene
where first you said "I love you!"
But lately all was clad in snow
so darksome, dull, and dreary.
Now birds all sing to hail the spring
and Nature all is cheery.
We soon shall view the roses tall
in all the charms of fancy,
But not for me these pleasures all,
except with you, my Nancy.
Five Poems by 20th-Century Female Poets
"WOMEN" is the first of what I hope to be many more large collaborations
with Jennifer. Over the last few years we have come to understand that our musical
sensibilities are very much alike. Back in the fall of 1996 we met and performed
many of the songs in the Bolcom/Morris "Words and Music" course. Two of
the songs here are settings by writers from that same class--"Bird" by
Holly Spaulding and "Invitation" by Melanie Kenny. The other three are
poems that Jennifer introduced to me as a few of her favorites. All the texts 'speak'
in a very forward way upon recitation, so I chose to set them with bold melodic/harmonic
The Prelude (instrumental) introduces the audience to players.
"I Remember" has an angular drive with strong syncopations. The melody
weaves through the texture, sometimes ignoring hemiolas in the orchestra, but always
completing the phrase in the right place. The constant flux between 3/8, 5/8, 6/8
and 7/8 makes for a bigger pay-off when the meter finally lands on and remains in
4/8 just before the last line of text near the end of the song.
I REMEMBER by Anne Sexton
By the first of August
the invisible beetles began
to snore and the grass was
as tough as hemp and was
no color--no more than
the sand was a color and
we had worn our bare feet
bare since the twentieth
of June and there were times
we forgot to wind up your
alarm clock and some nights
we took our gin warm and neat
from old jelly glasses while
the sun blew out of sight
like a red picture hat and
one day I tied my hair back
with a ribbon and you said
that I looked almost like
a puritan lady and what
I remember best is that
the door to your room was
the door to mine.
"Man Eating" is more subdued. The winds don't play during this movement.
The strings are used as a solid bed of sound, pushing forward and holding back to
support Jennifer's recitative-like phrasing.
MAN EATING by Jane Kenyon
The man at the table across from mine
is eating yogurt. His eyes, following
the progress of the spoon, cross briefly
each time it nears his face. Time,
and the world with all its principalities,
might come to an end as prophesied
by the Apostle John, but what about
this man, so completely present
to the little carton with its cool,
sweet food, which has caused no animal
to suffer, and which he is eating
with a pearl-white plastic spoon.
"Bird" is an elegy which originated as a song for piano/voice in 1996.
BIRD by Holly Spaulding
You once-blue bird, made for song
I find you lying on the ground,
white-washed with too much light.
Your eyes are rough-cut beads,
how still your waxen wings.
There's no sound within your beak;
It's sharp as a rock split open
bloodied as the rest of you
Red as a flower I will never know.
Dust binds your silent throat
Kneeling down I see how cold
your shape becomes in death.
And where is your nest now,
your colored bits of string?
Leaves fall and gather all around.
They make a heaven at your side.
And still you dream of flying far from here.
Too soon the sky is empty of your flight.
"Invitation" became very 'storyboard' in its conception. I've come to
compare it to a Tim Burton film like EDWARD SCISSOR-HANDS or THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE
CHRISTMAS. The first strophe of the poem is set with twisted music to prepare the
listener for the second strophe which waxes campy. The song ends with a wretched
INVITATION by Melanie Kenny
Each drive to the lake, I promise
to leave our cabin, walk up the dirt road
to the orchard of old hopes, planted by
a grandfather who left behind a woman
so lonely she broke.
The abandoned house lingers by the road,
a rusted eyelet of twisted wire its only defense.
Her face hovers at every window.
"Your can't come in," the grandmothers say,
"This place only understands emptiness."
Locusts buzz in the tall grass.
I hesitate at the gate, but don't venture in.
Like the apples, The house waits to fall.
"Bohemia" is a piece of bratty wit. Dorothy Parker's poem pokes fun
at all artists as being completely pretentious beings. In doing so she herself comes
off as being very snobby. This great dynamic is explored unabashedly in the playful
BOHEMIA by Dorothy Parker
Authors and actors and artists and such
Never know nothing, and never know much.
Sculptors and singers and those of their kidney
Tell their affairs from Seattle to Sydney.
Playwrights and poets and such horses' necks
Start off from anywhere, end up at sex.
Diarists, critics, and similar roe
Never say nothing, and never say no.
People Who Do Things exceed my endurance;
God, for a man that solicits insurance!
THE WALRUS AND THE CARPENTER
"'You like poetry?' [asked Tweedledee]. 'Ye-es, pretty well--some
poetry,' Alice said doubtfully... 'What shall I repeat to her?' said Tweedledee,
looking round at Tweedledum with great solemn eyes... 'The Walrus and the Carpenter
is the longest,' Tweedledum replied, giving his brother an affectionate hug. Tweedledee
began instantly..." (from Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll)
It is a long poem. It is also a funny poem. Not a thigh-slapping gut-wrencher,
but rather an eyebrow-cocking smirker, full of hyperbole and nonsense; strange, but
ever so proper. Lewis Carroll's poetry always makes me write music that sounds like
the fun-house mirror reflection of a lord in grand attire and a clown hat. Time-honored
styles become oddly overdone; the sea shanty, the march, the tango, the-recitative,
the lament, are all represented with the comic self-aggrandizement of a senile nobleman.
The drama of the poem lends itself well to the form of the old Italian scena.
The flavor of the story, familiar, yet with characters who cannot possibly be what
they are, warrants a similar tonality: familiar, but with relationships that are
not quite what we are used to. All in all, it is a frolicsome tragedy, and if a "bitter
tear" is shed while listening, it will be of the strange sadness borne of an
even stranger humor.
Poem by Lewis Carroll
The Walrus and the Carpenter
The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright--
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.
The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done--
"It's very rude of him;" she said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"
The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead--
There were no birds to fly.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand:
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
"If this were only cleared away,"
They said, "it would be grand!"
"If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.
"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each."
The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head--
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.
But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat--
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet
Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more--
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."
"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.
"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed--
Now, if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."
"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
"Do you admire the view?
"It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!"
The carpenter said nothing but
"Cut us another slice.
I wish you were not quite so deaf--
I've had to ask you twice!""It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick.
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"The butter's spread too thick."
"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
"O, Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?"
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.
Six Strokes (2000)
II. Very flexible but not too slow
III. Allegro volante
IV. Slowly rocking
V. Allegro molto
VI. Flowing, even tone throughout
SIX STROKES was written directly after hearing a recording of Winston playing
Mischa Zupko's THREE ETUDES about three months ago. They are quite diverse in pianistic
style and require a technique above and beyond anything else I have written for the
piano alone. The working titles I had given the pieces while composing them were
PASTA TO GO, LOVE 'N' GRIN, TV SNOW, CRADLE SONG, SCHRAPNEL and ORION, respectively.
These labels aided me a great deal in their conception.