The Book of Uncommon Prayer

(2008)

The Book of Uncommon Prayer is a song cycle by John Musto setting the poetry of Katherine Mosby, Tess Gallagher, Archibald MacLeish, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Patchen and Mark Strand.


Many songs from The Book of Uncommon Prayer are included in John Musto's Collected Songs volumes.


The audio recordings of The Book of Uncommon Prayer, provided in the audio playlist to the right, are made possible through a collaboration between the Hampsong Foundation and SongFest. For information about each recording, please visit the entries for individual songs. To listen, please click on the tracks themselves.


The poetry of The Book of Uncommon Prayer is included in the SongFest 2008 Book of Words, the PDF of which is listed on the right.


"The Book of Uncommon Prayer is a title borrowed from the handsome volume of poetry by poet/novelist Katherine Mosby. The poem are short, eloquent meditations, exhortations, and uncompromising glimpses of the self in which she formulates, in her own words, 'A form of prayer broad enough to include people who can’t name their god.' Ms. Mosby’s poems provided me with portals to related poems, and with an adhesive to bind the cycle together. There is no through line in the piece: the juxtaposition of texts is purely associative. This cycle is thus a meditation on a meditation, touching on some of the things for which we pray: sacred, secular, and seemingly quite profane.


"'The Confitebor' is two verses from Psalm 42, but appears here in Latin because it is part of the opening prayers of the Ordinary of the Mass. Its last line, 'Why are thou sad, my soul, and why dost thou trouble me?' and that of Bleach my bones 'Let one day the shadow lift that binds my soul to sadness' intersect at a fundamental unease in the human condition.


"'Teach Me the Beauty' and 'I Stop Writing the Poem' stand in stark contrast to each other, the one describing an inner wilderness, the other domestic routine, but there is a lesson learned in both. The emptiness of the self is echoed in the emptiness of the shirt, arms in a folded embrace, foreshadowing the death of the poet’s husband from a long illness.


"'Help Me to Laugh' and 'Old Photograph' share laughing as a theme, but the laughter of MacLeish’s young woman (his wife Ada, an operatic soprano) is forced. She seems to be saying to the lens, 'Ne me touchez pas,' the first words we hear Melisande utter in the forest. The main tune of the song, a quotation of 'Mes longs cheveux descendent jusqu’au seuil de la tour' and other musical snippets from Debussy’s opera, Pelleas et Melisande make up the accompaniment to the song. The couple alluded to in the poem, Gerald and Sara Murphy, were wealthy arts patrons (Gerald being an accomplished painter) who lived for a time as expatriates in a chalet in Cap d’Antibes that they dubbed 'Villa America.' They regularly played host to Picasso, Hemingway, Dos Passos, the Fitzgeralds and the MacLeishes, and many other creative luminaries of the early twentieth century.


"Archibald MacLeish’s 'The Two Priests' and 'Music and Drum' are two poems put together in one setting. The anti-clerical, anti-establishment tone is refreshing, coming from a lawyer who served as assistant director of the Office of War Information from 1942-1943. He also served as Assistant Secretary of State for Cultural and Public Affairs, and wrote speeches for Franklin Roosevelt.


"The decidedly secular exhortations of 'Let Sing the Bedsprings' serve as prelude to Ferlinghetti’s lusty, beat hallucination, 'San Jose Symphony Reception.' This scene well could be a circle of the Inferno, its frustrated denizens forever on the make.


"Two poems of journey follow: 'For I Have Come So Long' is accompanied by variations over a repeating 12-note bass figure, suggesting weary travel, never arriving. 'Calypso' was commissioned and premiered by the New York Festival of Song some years ago as part of its 'American Love Songs' and has found a home in this cycle.


"The next three poems share the grave as their subject, albeit in very different ways. Much of Kenneth Patchen’s poetry speaks of the horrors of war, and 'Breathe on the Living' was penned during or just after World War II. It is set as a chorale. Archibald MacLeish’s 'Words to Be Spoken' is inscribed, 'For Baoth Wiborg, son of Gerald and Sara Murphy, who died in New England in his sixteenth year and a tree was planted there.' He died in 1935 of meningitis. Mark Strand’s brilliantly nihilistic 'Some Last Words,' which begins with a rude mangling of one of Jesus’ parables, is a wry allusion to the 'Seven Last Words of Christ.'


"Hope, and the opening music, returns in 'Angels Have I None' and 'The Phoenix Prayer,' two poems by Katherine Mosby, the latter being the last poem in the volume.


"As the piece began with a standard prayer, it ends with 'Keep Watch,' the text culled from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. This song is dedicated to the memory of the late Josephine Blier. A short postlude recalls some earlier musical thoughts, but ruminates predominantly on the initial question, 'Why are thou sad, my soul, and why dost thou trouble me?'"


--John Musto


The song is for SATB and piano.


Songs:


I. Confitébor/Bleach my bones | Text: Psalm 42 & Katherine Mosby
II. Teach Me the Beauty | Text: Katherine Mosby
III. I Stop Writing the Poem | Text: Tess Gallagher
IV. Help Me to Laugh | Text: Katherine Mosby
V. Old Photograph | Text: Archibald MacLeish
VI. The Two Priests & Music and Drum | Text: Archibald MacLeish
VII. Let Sing the Bedsprings | Text: Katherine Mosby
VIII. San Jose Symphony Reception (Flagrante delicto) / Text: Lawrence Ferlinghetti
IX. For I Have Come So Long / Text: Katherine Mosby
X. Calypso | Text: W. H. Auden
XI. Chorale: Breathe on the Living | Text: Kenneth Patchen
XII. Words to Be Spoken | Text: Archibald MacLeish
XIII. Some Last Words | Text: Mark Strand
XIV. Angels Have I None & The Phoenix Prayer | Text: Katherine Mosby
XV. Keep Watch | Text: from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer


Audio PLaylist