The Sleeping Earth
Photo taken in Jackson, Wyoming, 2015
for soprano and orchestra (2019)
Written for the Phlox Orchestra and soprano soloist, The Sleeping Earth grew out of an unexpected fascination I found when I discovered 19th-century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. I have seldom worked with poetry or text while composing, and so when I first was brainstorming ideas for this orchestra project, my intention was to write a piece for standalone orchestra. However, eventually wanting some external inspiration, I casually started searching various 18th and 19th century poetry – and with some luck, one of the first ones that I came across was “The cold earth slept below” by Shelley. I was so inexplicably drawn to the text because of its intense intertwining of bleak, yet beautiful, nature imagery with revelations of darkness in human life, of a loved one’s tragic death. To amplify the heaviness of the work, I learned that the poem recounts Shelley’s true experience, of when his first wife committed suicide by drowning in a lake.
Reading the poem was an incredibly powerful and emotional experience in itself. Despite never having been a dedicated reader of poetry, by a second reading of this particular poem, I was compelled to amplify this heavy story by setting it to music. Thus, throughout this piece, the soprano soloist and orchestra together explore the dramatic arc of the poem’s narrative. In particular, I sought to portray through the soloist what I imagined of the poet’s experience when he had to uncover and live through this haunting, terrible tragedy.
Performed by Jaclyn Hopping, soprano, and the Phlox Orchestra at Finney Chapel, Oberlin Conservatory on February 2nd, 2020. Conducted by Nan Washburn.
T E X T
The cold earth slept below by Percy Bysshe Shelley
The cold earth slept below;
Above the cold sky shone;
And all around,
With a chilling sound,
From caves of ice and fields of snow
The breath of night like death did flow
Beneath the sinking moon.
The wintry hedge was black;
The green grass was not seen;
The birds did rest
On the bare thorn’s breast,
Whose roots, beside the pathway track,
Had bound their folds o’er many a crack
Which the frost had made between.
Thine eyes glow’d in the glare
Of the moon’s dying light;
As a fen-fire’s beam
On a sluggish stream
Gleams dimly—so the moon shone there,
And it yellow’d the strings of thy tangled hair,
That shook in the wind of night.
The moon made thy lips pale, beloved;
The wind made thy bosom chill;
The night did shed
On thy dear head
Its frozen dew, and thou didst lie
Where the bitter breath of the naked sky
Might visit thee at will.