William McGonagall (1825-1902) was a weaver and teetotaller from Dundee, Scotland, with an unshakeable faith in his poetic genius. His vast oeuvre, which to the present day has largely remained unrecognized, seems to set out to amuse, startle, and confuse its readers:
Alas! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last,
Which causes many people to feel a little downcast.
The Times Literary Supplement called William McGonagall 'a real genius, for he is the only memorable bad poet in our language'. McGonagall recited his poetry at tea circles and soirées at the homes of the upper social strata, or after he had starred, with his wavy locks, on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Dundee, as Richard III, Othello, or Hamlet, amidst a crowd in the foyer surrounding him in adoration. But McGonagall regarded such homage, mostly paid to him by elderly ladies, as cheaply won success. He much rather preferred to perform his work in the pubs, where his poetry could bring spiritual elevation to unrefined souls, and free them from their enslavement to the bottle:
Therefore cease from strong drink,
And you will likely do well,
Then there's not so much danger
of going to hell!
On such missions, small objects, such as peas or wet towels, were sometimes thrown at McGonagall. In the parish of Liff, three men waited for him outside the pub, after he had rendered his art.
Bad poetry can be an excellent source of inspiration for a composer. Dante, Virgil, Goethe all evoke reverence and awe, and reluctance to open all portholes in the battleship of the imagination. And not without reason: after all, good poetry is already music in itself, and fares well without support. When Oliver Knussen, composer, conductor, and connaisseur of Scottish paraphernalia, gave me The Complete McGonagall *) as a Christmas present in 1992, I immediately sensed the musical potential of this remarkable poetry. Leafing through the countless pages of Poetic Gems, its successor More Poetic Gems, and its sequels Yet More Poetic Gems and Last Poetic Gems, I was deeply touched by the unconscious tristesse that runs through McGonagall's poetry. It counteracts with his unconcious humour, and together they blend into a wonderful amalgam of emotions in the reader's mind.
Woolly, ritualistic formulations, followed by vigorous, unexpected outbursts. Minute observations and dazzling bombastic verbosity, resulting in a hypnotizing anti-lyricism; a limp sense of meter wanders, seemingly clueless, through an unhinged linguistic landscape. These are the unusual means with which McGonagall manages to create dramatic tension between the possibilities and imperfections of language.
Two poems from the volume Poetic Gems form the core of the McGonagall-Lieder. The Address to the New Tay Bridge is a monumental ode to human ingenuity and technological progress. Written for the inauguration of the railway bridge in 1875, it is filled with carefree optimism and ecstatic exuberance. Fate decided, however, to make the the bridge collapse a few years later, which urged McGonagall to write the The Tay Bridge Disaster. This second poem recounts how the bridge was blown down in a heavy thunderstorm, just as the train from Edinburgh was about midway. Ninety passengers, on their way to celebrate New Year's Eve, were dragged along in a fatal downfall.
In this diptych, euphoria and deception, and fear and over-confidence, are entangled in a deadly embrace. Where McGonagall praises the bridge extensively for its strenght in the Address, ('strong enough all windy storms to defy'), it is exactly this 'defect' in the construction plan of the bridge's rigidity, that later on causes the catastrophe. Where in times of prosperity worldly powers such as Duke, Lord or Queen are transported across the bridge in full regalia, it is a wrathful Boreas, who holds sway over the sceptre in the Disaster, and pleas for divine supervision are humbly murmured.
In addition to this, a bridge is also a tremendous metaphor: it transports us to the unknown, the otherwise unreachable. A bridge tries to make a connection between here and the hereafter, to bridge the gap between ourselves and the others.
In a musical sense, the McGonagall-Lieder also have the shape of a bridge. The two songs form the arches, or 'central girders' as it were, that curve the silhouette of the bridge. They are interspersed with 'strong brick piers', sections of instrumental music. To set McGonagall's poetry to music was no sinecure. It took me a long time before I felt I had gained access to his labyrinthine world of thoughts. I certainly did not want to make a funny piece, since his prose is meant to be very serious, an attitude that seemed the most appropriate point of departure for the music. The opening section, For two pianos, is therefore in a certain way intended to bring the audience in the proper state of mind, and more susceptible to the poetic forces of the Address to the New Tay Bridge.
The frivolous nature of this poem, brought me to the idea of a colorature soprano being the most suitable vehicle to convey this extraordinary infatuation with a piece of infrastructure. As a counterpoint in the low register, I added four 'celli and a double bass, to propel the piece with relentless motoric and rhythmical energy. The idea to utilize two pianos stems from a request by the Dutch piano duo Gerard Bouwhuis and Cees van Zeeland. But it can also be regarded as a hint at Richard Strauss' Enoch Arden, op. 38 , for narrator and piano. This work, with its sublime ending line 'and never had the town seen a more costly funeral', served as an eye-opener, and helped me a great deal in defining the soundworld of the McGonagall-Lieder . And of course there would be a windmachine, just as a windmachine must undoubtably have howled through the Theatre Royal when the witches were gathering at the opening of Macbeth, and McGonagall was still off-stage in the dressingroom, in preparation of his appearance.
On the night of November the 23rd 1654, Blaise Pascal capsized with his carriage on the Pont de Neuilly in Paris, when he suddenly beheld the 'divine light'. From that moment on, the mind of the great French thinker was filled with fear for the infinite space surrounding him. The abyss was everywhere. Les espaces infinis m'effraient!, the subtitle of 'The Tay Bridge Disaster', tries to capture the mood of the passengers on their journey towards this divine light. McGonagall himself seems mostly concerned with his bridge, though this might be an optical delusion. It could well be that the endless repetitions of phrases, which I have amplified with stuttering and mumbling, attempt to camouflage fierce fits of grief that have struck numb the poet's voice. The neutral tone with which McGonagall depicts the dramatic tumble of the passengers into the Silvery Tay, is echoed by the dropping of ninety pingpongballs, whilst a distant churchbell strikes seven.
In a café on the Spui in Amsterdam, Oliver Knussen told me a number of years ago how he had dreamt he attended a performance of a piece of music of mine. He still recalled the opening chords of his rêverie, and wrote them down for me on a sheet of paper. They are the signal-like sforzando-chords that begin the McGonagall-Lieder, and reappear in many different shapes in the course of the piece, which lasts for about an hour.
For Two Pianos 11'
Address to the New Tay Bridge 12'
For Two Pianos and Strings 13'
The Tay Bridge Disaster 23'
*) 'The Complete McGonagall', Duckworth Press, ISBN 0 7156 05011
McGonagall-Lieder music samples
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