The Cry of the Sedge
for Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Tenor, Baritone, and Guitar
poetry by William Butler Yeats
premiere: University of Illinois
April 17, 1974
Frances Crawford, soprano; Mary Burdette, mezzo soprano, Thomas Mitchell, tenor; Ronald Hedlund, baritone; Paul Cox, guitar.
[Not available for performance.]
At its premiere The Cry of the Sedge was semi-staged, not as the enactment of a story, but as a ritualistic telling of a story, with certain singers representing the three characters in the story. Yeats’s poetry relates the story of a medieval woman who loves a man in secret. She cannot bear to give himself to him physically, but understanding his physical desire she sends her chambermaid to make love to him in utter silence and darkness. This arrangement leaves no one fully satisfied, and only in death do their graves allow them to all lie side by side.
The baritone represents a balladeer, with the other singers representing the lady, her chambermaid, and the lover singing songs that express their feelings. The balladeer’s music uses the Dorian mode and is pseudo-Medieval in style, whereas the songs of the characters are chromatic and contemporary.
Looking at the work decades later I can see that it reveals my interest in the theater, but the work sits awkwardly between genres. The performers required are not easily put together for a recital, and it is not really a stage work. Reading Martin Puchner 2002 book Stage Fright helped me understand that Yeats mistrusted basic aspects of theater performance, and even in his plays he often tried to limit theatrical performance to a recitation of poetry, with the central place held by a bard, musicisn, singer, or singing poet.
This work is true to that spirit: here one character poetrically tells the story, and other characters tell their inner feelings. This is fundamentally opposed to the theater’s tradition of showing the story and the characters’ emotions in action. As someone who has come to love the performance aspects of the theater, I can now see that the limits imposed by Yeats poetry make a theatrical result difficult to achieve. I have tried using some of the material to create a song cycle for voice and piano, but I was not completely satisfied by the result for similar reasons.