Yeats at 150
A sequence of poetry, prose and music to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the poet WB Yeats.
A century and a half after the birth of WB Yeats, this edition of Words and Music seeks to convey the scope of this prolific poet's work and also the inspiration that his poems have provided over the ensuing years for a wide range of composers from Sir Michael Tippett to Joni Mitchell. The poems are read by Brid Brennan and Lorcan Cranitch.
Producer: Torquil MacLeod.
Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes
When You Are Old, Brid Brennan
Broken Dreams, Lorcan Cranitch
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, Lorcan Cranitch
Coole Park and Ballylee 1931, Brid Brennan
The Wild Swans at Coole, Brid Brennan
Leda and the Swan, Brid Brennan
The Song of Wandering Aengus, Lorcan Cranitch
The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Brid Brennan
The Collar-Bone of a Hare, Lorcan Cranitch
Sailing To Byzantium, Brid Brennan
Easter 1916, Lorcan Cranitch
September 1913, Brid Brennan
The Rose Tree, Lorcan Cranitch
To Ireland in the Coming Times, Lorcan Cranitch
150 years after the birth of WB Yeats, this edition of Words and Music seeks to convey the scope of this prolific poet’s work and also the inspiration that he has provided and continues to provide for a wide range of composers.
We begin with Ivor Gurney’s setting of the 1892 poem The Fiddler of Dooney. Yeats chose to conclude his collection of tormented poems, The Wind among the Reeds, with this sweet, folk-like ballad. On this occasion, it provides a starting point.
The first group of poems – When You Are Old; Broken Dreams; He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven; Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931 – are united by themes of love but, almost without exception, accompanied by a sense of loss or regret brought on by the consciousness of the passing of time.
The Salley Gardens, played by Matthew Barley, is Britten’s arrangement of a folk song – Down by the Salley Gardens – which Yeats adapted in 1889. It is an older man’s rueful account of love lost due to youthful foolishness.
Peter Warlock set four of Yeats’s poems to music – including He reproves the Curlew – under the title of The Curlew. Here, the instrumental interlude which separates the last two poems has a mournful wistfulness which perfectly echoes the sentiment of the verse.
In the final stanza of Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931, a swan appears that ‘drifts upon a darkening flood’. It is the first of several members of the genus Cygnus that we are going to meet over the next quarter of an hour, in celebration of which here are krautrock pioneers Can with Sing Swan Song from their 1972 album Ege Bamyasi.
Swans appear in several of Yeats’s romantic or elegiac poems. In The Wild Swans at Coole, there is a vague, tantalising intimacy between the poet and the swans, as if the swans represent human souls or human feelings liberated from mere flesh.
Living Waters from Philip Glass’s work Anima Mundi, reflects Yeats’s belief in the ‘spirit of the world’ – a repository of all great lyrics, symbols and images for which the poet becomes a vessel.
We stay with swans, but take a turn into the more fantastical and magical side of Yeats’s work with his vivid retelling of Zeus’s brutal union with Leda in the form of an Olympian cob. Then on to another mythical bird – Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela.
The magic gets stronger and stranger as, first of all, a trout turns into a girl and then disappears entirely in The Song of Wandering Aengus, then, in John Taverner’s setting of The Stolen Child, a human child is enticed and spirited away by faeries.
Sounding suitably otherworldly, Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing clicks and whispers its way into your consciousness. Yeat’s wife – Georgie – filled thousands of pages with automatic writing, often in response to questions from Yeats. These provided him with important insights into the symbolic relationship between him, Georgie, Maud Gonne and her daughter Iseult.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree stems from Yeats’s ideas of leading a life of rural seclusion once he had freed himself from bodily desire. He grew somewhat embarrassed by the success of the poem. The Collar-Bone of a Hare is a vision of another kind of paradise, but a less hermetic one.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is Joni Mitchell’s interpretation of The Second Coming. This poem subverts the happy hope of the Christian millennium, offering something dark and savage instead. Again the Spiritus Mundi is mentioned and it is also a poem about the creation of symbols. Yeats identified himself with various symbols, one of which, a golden bird, he is transformed into in the following poem – Sailing to Byzantium. This image, along with a mosaic saint, are used to describe the soul’s condition after death. In the later poem Byzantium – here in a setting by Sir Michael Tippett – Yeats offers a more elaborate tour of the afterlife.
Our focus now moves to the politics of Ireland, beginning with Easter 1916 – Yeats’s response to the execution of the fifteen leaders of the Easter Rebellion of 24th April 1916. Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 9 seems to fit the mood, but its connection with Yeats is not political. Both men were followers of theosophy and the famous spiritualist Madame Blavatsky.
The political theme continues with September 1913 and The Rose Tree. The Funeral March from Diarmid and Grania is a piece which was composed by Elgar to accompany a play written by Yeats in collaboration with George Moore, based on a tale from Irish mythology.
1983...A Merman I Should Turn To Be from the Jimi Hendrix album Electric Ladyland acknowledges one of the more recherché self-images that Yeats had – a statue of a triton.
To Ireland in the Coming Times concludes this selection on an appropriately forward looking note. Finally, our ultimate musical offering from Sian O Riada, a composer who was perhaps the most influential figure in the revival of traditional Irish music during the 1960s. A mission that Yeats would no doubt have approved of.