The Chimney Sweeper
Kris Peysen Composer
For SATB choir, woodwind quartet, and piano
I consider this piece to effectively be my undergraduate thesis. I wasn’t required to write a thesis for my undergrad degree, but if I had been, this would be it. It was the culmination of many developments in my undergrad career, and it remains to this day my longest work.
It initially came about from the need to fulfill a requirement. At UNT, we were required to have a portfolio by the end of our degree that consisted of different “types” of pieces, and one of those requirements was that we write a piece that set a text. As this was the only thing I had left at this point, I decided to write a choral piece. So I began looking for poems, mostly suggestions I had gotten from my instructor (I’ve never been a poetry connoisseur). I don’t really remember what it was I looked at – largely because it became irrelevant, because at some point during this process I remembered the "Chimney Sweeper" poems by William Blake and almost immediately decided I wanted to set them.
I was first introduced to these poems during high school. They were listed in one of the AP English tests I took, with an essay prompt along the lines of “compare and contrast these two poems.” Even then, I was struck by the interesting duality in them – very simple structure and rhyme schemes, but more mature and darker thematic material lying underneath the surface. As I thought about these poems, I thought this would be an interesting idea to explore musically. I also immediately knew that I needed to set both of them if I wanted to use them at all – they’re companion poems, after all. And since I also decided that I wanted a wind quartet and piano to accompany the choir, the idea of an instrumental movement bridging the two poems also occurred to me as well as something that would be naturally fitting.
Once I had decided on the structure, I began to think about the overall aesthetics of the piece. In this regard, I was heavily influenced by Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. One of the things that Stravinsky was most well-known for was his lack of sentimentality in his music, and Symphony of Psalms seemed to in many ways exemplify that. Here he took texts that in the hands of other composers had always been set to music that was very “uplifting,” or “happy,” and instead offered something that was much more subtle and nuanced. It wasn’t a “subversion” – on the contrary, I think what he did was much more “true” to the texts. With the "Chimney Sweeper" poems, I wanted to do the same thing. It would have been all too easy to be overly sad or foreboding with the music to these poems, and I didn’t want to do that. Subtlety was the key here, I felt. In that regard I feel I have succeeded, though perhaps listeners should be the judge.
There was also a more specific instance of inspiration that came from Symphony of Psalms, and it regards the ending. The ending of that piece is arguably the most famous part of it. After lots of activity, the piece arrives at this position of stasis, where it seems to stretch onwards into infinity. I absolutely loved that idea, and decided to mimic it to a degree in my own piece. So when I finally arrived at the last line of the second poem – “Who made up a heaven of our misery” – I really stretched it out. The effect is (I hope) similar to the ending of Symphony of Psalms. There are a few differences; mainly, it’s not as long as Stravinsky’s ending, and it also has some forward momentum, whereas Stravinsky’s piece truly does feel like it could go on forever. Still, it was clearly meant to be modeled off of that passage – as well as being an homage. I felt it was appropriate for the text as well, as this could (musically) demonstrate the chimney sweeper’s resignation and perhaps even acceptance of his lot in life – I even included the words “With resigned finality” in the score to help convey this. In other words, it says that this is his existence, from now until he dies; and furthermore, he sees this with complete awareness. A very bleak ending, to be sure, but that again is a reflection of the poem.
April 21, 2010: University of North Texas (with four soloists singing the choral parts)