Roses in Winter
You might not agree that this little art song is anything special, but it captivated me. “Roses in Winter” is another result of my internet archeology via IMSLP. Composed by Arthur Foote on a poem by Philip Bourke Marston, it’s a piece I can’t find a recording of anywhere — which makes it more exciting, because I love finding obscurities.
(I did discover that if you Google “Philip Bourke Marston Roses in Winter” under “Videos,” the first hit is “Snooki in tears after being kicked off Dancing with the Stars.” I am not making that up.)
“Roses’ Song” comes from Marston’s “Garden Secrets,” in which the Rose and the Lily converse with the beech and elm trees. Rose is the most troubled of the characters – she loves the wind although he can be violent; she dreams of dying; and unlike the trees, the flowers never see winter.
The chapter is “Garden Fairies.” Fairies were a favorite Romantic idea, so much so that people really wanted to believe in them – and here the fairies encounter the roses singing:
“Softly sinking through the snow,
To our winter rest we go;
Underneath the snow to house
Till the birds be in the boughs,
And the boughs with leaves be fair,
And the sun shine everywhere.
“Softly through the snow we settle,
Little Snowdrops press each petal.
Oh! the snow is kind and white,
Soft it is, and very light;
Soon we shall be where no light is,
But where sleep is, and where night is,—
Sleep of every wind unshaken,*
Till our summer bids us waken.”
* This line appears in some editions, not all.
How symbolic is this, I wondered? Is it about sleep, death, or just flowers and seasons? It’s hard to interpret without knowing more about the author and his other work. I looked into it.
Marston’s life took a very sad turn, and most of his poetry reflected it. Born in London in 1850, Marston was blinded at age 3, the result of belladonna given to prevent scarlet fever combined with an accidental eye injury.
Blindness was not the source of his life’s sorrow, however. It was the death of his fiancée in 1871 that devastated him. (His mother had died the previous year; a few years later, his best friend died, and then both of his sisters.)
Understandably, his poems became increasingly melancholy as his life went on. From my research, the first of the “Garden Secrets” poems were published in 1871 (“Song-tide, and Other Poems”), soon after the death of his betrothed. I found “The Roses’ Song” in a later volume, “Wind-Voices,” published in 1883. That doesn’t prove when Marston wrote the poem, but makes it likely that it reflects grief.
(A free download of his collected poems is found HERE.)
“Garden Secrets” are light compared to his other work, but even optimistic passages are tinged with a bittersweet tone. After The Roses’ Song, for example, the Fairies rejoin:
“Then toward some far-off goal that singing drew;
Then altogether ceased; more steely blue
The blue stars shone; but in my spirit grew
Hope of Summer, love of roses,
Certainty that sorrow closes.”
The Poetic Meter/Rhythm
If you read the poem aloud, you’ll notice a clear rhythmic structure. It’s possible to read the first part in one rhythm throughout:
(English majors, please correct me if I’m wrong, but) I think the poem is trochaic tetrameter – stress, unstress; four feet per line. It would be easy for this to become “sing-song.”
The second section introduces equal syllables, in its simplest reading:
(The fairies’ reply has three lines in iambic pentameter — unstress, stress; five feet per line — before returning to trochaic tetrameter.)
Ongoing equal durations can give a sense of momentum or stasis, depending on other musical factors. When there is momentum, there must be repose at some point; in a sense, repose is the destination of the phrase and gives meaning to the phrase’s energy. Imagine running and stopping immediately without any preparation; unless you’re running into a wall, it doesn’t work. We stop by braking the forward momentum at some point and in some way, rebalancing weight in a more stable place.
Equal durations make up the rest of the poem with the exception of the next two lines:
The longer durations of “white” and “light” create momentary shifts of energy, rather than grounded points of balance, in part because the phrases are so short. The quality is more of a subtle drift than a centered resolution.
The Music – Arthur Foote
Call me a Romantic, but I love this piece.
Foote was a Unitarian Church musician and teacher as well as a composer. His music can be charming in a subtle way, more 19th than 20th century in style and sensibility.
Looking at Foote’s “Roses in Winter” for the first time, it seemed the piano part, melody and text were somehow out of kilter. I realized I wanted the rhythm to be this:
But instead, it is this:
If the long duration – “snow” – began a new measure, the phrase would have a different shape and energy. The sixteenth-notes would move decidedly toward the half note, and the half note would have crusic emphasis. The shape of the phrase would then be fall – lift.
As written, “snow” is still the peak of the phrase, in the sense that it is the destination of the other sounds; but occurring in mid-measure, it has a quality of hovering rather than rebounding or halting.
In lieu of a tempo marking, Foote indicates, “Quietly and rhythmically” and adds an eighth note in parentheses. An eighth note, of course, is not a rhythm. Was there a metronome mark missing? Or is he saying to consider even eighth notes the rhythmic focus?
The sparse piano part has chords falling softly (like snow); these gradually fill in until they become steady divisions throughout the measure.
The vocal part finally sounds a crusis for the first time at measure 9 – “SOFT-ly” – reprising the first two lines of verse.
For the second section of the poem, where Marston’s poem is read as ongoing equal durations, Foote gives the piano part back its silences for a moment and allows the melody to flow ahead with crusic phrasing.
You could imagine the text “’Til our summer bids us waken” set in a continuation of this rhythm. Instead, a pattern of shifting harmony drifts into a lovely folding back to the opening rhythm and text, leaving the melody to float suspended on B, rather than resolving to A — so simple, and so effective.
A few ideas for teaching or exploring on your own
The poem can stand alone, in its simplest reading, for children.
When read as equal syllables, the poem is a way to learn and reinforce basic beat and division. For example:
- Clap beats in circles of “soccer ball size,” then divisions in “baseball size.”
- Speak the poem and clap the rhythm. How many soccer balls? (Be careful not to overly accent words “SNOW” and “GO,” for example.)
- Partners: one claps only beats, the other claps only divisions. Reverse.
- Move toward destinations – “Snow” is one place, “Go” is another; children become aware of direction, duration and arrival.
- Step the rhythm and change direction on each long duration.
- Use words to group durations into patterns, such as “fundamental” (four eighth notes) and “anapest” (two eighth notes, one quarter note), or just “watermelon” and “applesauce,” for instance.
- Make a set of cards with these patterns; arrange them to reflect the poem as read, then rearrange to create new phrases for the students to clap, play on instruments, move, etc.
- Some teachers like to have children move with objects for visual focus. If you do, you or the children could make paper snowflakes by folding and cutting white paper, then attach white thread to each and tie the other end to children’s fingers.
- Introduce the poem and let students suggest other rhythmic settings that might work for setting it to music. For example:
- Have students conduct and walk slowly in 4. You might play the piano accompaniment and ask them to create movement reflecting the descending pairs of 8th notes on the first and third beats, or clap lightly.
- Play and/or sing a few phrases of the song. Students clap lightly to discover the durations. Does “snow” burst into a clap or great energy, or suspend? Teach phrases measure by measure so that students can sing them with the text.
- Sing, conduct, and step the rhythm simultaneously. You might begin by using a conducting pattern that is twice as fast, so that “snow” is in fact crusic, as written above. Then change to the sustained conducting of the piece, without changing speed of the melody. How does the metric structure change the energy and shape of the phrase? How does it affect the breath that begins each measure?
- You could provide the rhythmic structure of the piece, supplied here, for study.
That’s off the top of my head. You might discover more as you work with a group!