E N D L E S S
SATB divisi, soloists, string quartet, and percussion ensemble (4 players) | Duration c. 54'00”
Libretto adapted from Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore (1861 - 1941).
To obtain a perusal score or order for performance, please contact me.
At the very beginning of my PhD research at the University of Aberdeen in January, 2014, Professor Paul Mealor suggested that I should study the works of the great Bengali poet and spiritual icon Rabindranath Tagore. Having never heard of this poet and being ever in search of quality text to work with, I immediately sought out a copy of Gitanjali, the collection of ‘song offerings’ that in 1913 would secure Tagore’s status as the first non-European to win the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature.
I was entirely transfixed by the spiritual landscape of Gitanjali, and read the collection cover to cover in a matter of hours. There is a simplicity and immediacy to these words, and yet the depth of humanity and spirituality that Tagore achieved through such simple means is astonishing. Aided by the involvement of William Butler Yeats, who likewise had an immediate visceral reaction to his Bengali counterpart’s work and had a hand in its translation to English in 1912, Tagore’s Gitanjali was embraced by the West for its seamless integration of nature and spirituality in the form of poetry.
Despite this transcendent spiritualism, Tagore leaves a great amount of room for doubt in these devotional poems. While the inclusion of doubt in spiritual writing was not unheard of at the time, his brand of poetry allowed for doubt to be an inclusive part of the process of seeking divinity in a unique way. Gitanjali is a winding journey of faith, constantly shifting between moments of jubilant belief, overwhelming awe at the power of the divine, and periods of intense inward questioning.
Endless is a setting of excerpts from fifteen individual poems selected from Gitanjali. These verses are grouped in sets of three and organized into five larger movements, each representing a stage in the endless cycle of faith and questioning that is so prevalent in Tagore’s writing. The work opens in a place of faith in the first movement, and the second movement begins to question that faith. The third movement is a moment of darkness and doubt, when the speaker closes himself almost entirely to spirituality. In the fourth movement, a period of reflection, the speaker begins to find a new path to spirituality, and the fifth and final movement is the arrival of a new understanding; of finding spirituality in the simplicity of joy.
In addition to the linear arc of this narrative, Endless is symmetrically constructed to deepen the reflective aspects of the work. Each movement and sub-movement is mirrored in at least one aspect by its counterpart, with the central movement (3b – the moment of deepest doubt) being the axis around which this mirroring takes place. Thus movement 1 is paired with movement 5, and movement 2 is paired with movement 4. Similarly, every sub-movement is mirrored in the same fashion; movement 1a is mirrored by 5c, 1b is mirrored by 5b, and so on [see below].
Pairing of movements in ‘Endless.’
In combination with the overall linear trajectory, this mirrored architecture creates an opportunity to gaze back in the latter portion of the work. This concept is strongly illustrated in the fourth movement, as its partner in form (movement 2) is closely related in terms of musical and lyrical material. The retroactive viewpoint allows us to look backward over the gulf of doubt that exists in the third movement to focus on the cause of the loss of faith. In doing so, we recognize the importance of this doubt as a part of the cycle of spirituality. This relates directly to Tagore’s use of the symbolism of the lotus flower; the blossom that rises to prominence out of the miry environment of its origin. Verse 20, ‘On the day when the lotus bloomed,’ illustrates the symbolism of the lotus beautifully as the textual basis for movement 4b, a crucial moment in the development of both the linear and reflective narratives of the work:
On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying,
and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.
Only now and again a sadness fell upon me, and I started up from my
dream and felt a sweet trace of a strange fragrance in the south wind.
That vague sweetness made my heart ache with longing and it seemed to
me that it was the eager breath of the summer seeking for its completion.
I knew not then that it was so near, that it was mine, and that
this perfect sweetness had blossomed in the depth of my own heart.
Gitanjali, verse 20.
However, it isn’t until the fifth and final movement that we gain full understanding of the power of this symbolism. In movement 5a, the narrative develops into the realization that the pain of doubt and fear, represented strongly in the cloud of the third movement, is just as essential and integral to our understanding of spirituality as moments of certainty and joy. In fact, Tagore’s words go so far as to suggest that there is a type of profound joy within that pain. Verse 58 serves as the basis for this movement:
Let all the strains of joy mingle in my last song – the joy that makes the earth flow over in the
riotous excess of the grass, the joy that sets the twin brothers, life and death, dancing over the
wide world, the joy that sweeps in with the tempest, shaking and waking all life with laughter,
the joy that sits still on the lotus of pain, and the joy that throws
everything it has upon the dust, and knows not a word.
Gitanjali, verse 58.
Endless does not seek to find definitive answers to the questions of faith that arise in Gitanjali. Instead it is a representation of the cycle of faith and questioning that every human being experiences throughout the course of their life, and which is represented so vividly in the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. This cycle is indeed ‘endless,’ with new thoughts and experiences informing our concept of one of the most important aspects of human life; spirituality. Most importantly though, we are left at the end of the work with the reassurance that there is still time to find the answers to these questions.
And thus it is that time goes by.
We have no time to lose.
We are too poor to be late.
But we find that yet there is time.
Gitanjali, adapted from verse 82.
Adapted from Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
1. Ages Pass
1a. “Thou hast made me endless…”
Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.
Ages pass, and still thou pourest.
This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
1b. “I know not how thou singest…”
I know not how thou singest, my master! I ever listen with silent amazement.
The light of thy music illumines the world. The life of thy music runs from sky to sky. The stream of thy music breaks through all and rushes on.
My heart longs to join in thy song, but struggles for a voice. Thou hast made my heart captive in the endless meshes of thy music, my master!
1c. “I am here to sing thee songs...”
I am here to sing thee songs. In this hall of thine I have a corner seat.
In thy world I have no work to do; my useless life can only break out in tunes without a purpose.
When the hour strikes for thy silent worship at the temple of midnight, command me, my master, to stand before thee to sing.
When in the morning air the harp is tuned, honor me, commanding my presence.
2. That Shoreless Ocean
2a. “Leave this chanting and singing…”
Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!
He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust.
Come out of thy meditations and leave aside thy flowers and incense! What harm is there if clothes become tattered and stained? Stand by him in sweat of thy brow.
2b. “Early in the day…”
Early in the day it was whispered that we should sail, only thou and I, and never a soul would know.
In that shoreless ocean, at thy silently listening smile my songs would swell with melodies, free as waves, free from all bondage of words.
Is the time not come? Are there works to do? Lo, the evening has come down upon the shore and in the fading light the seabirds come flying to their nests.
Who knows when the chains will be off, and the boat, like the last glimmer of sunset, vanish into the night?
2c. “Art thou abroad on this stormy night…”
Art thou abroad on this stormy night on thy journey of love, my friend? The sky groans like one in despair.
Ever and again I open my door and look out on the darkness, my friend!
I wonder where lies thy path!
By what dim shore of the ink-black river, by what far edge of the frowning forest, through what mazy depth of gloom art thou threading thy course to come to me, my friend?
3. My True Being
3a. “The rain has held back for days…”
The rain has held back for days and days, my God, in my arid heart. The horizon is fiercely naked – not the thinnest cover of a soft cloud, not the vaguest hint of a distant cool shower.
Send thy angry storm, dark with death, and with lashes of lightning startle the sky from end to end.
But call back, my lord, call back this pervading silent heat, still and keen and cruel, burning the heart with dire despair.
Let the cloud of grace bend low from above like the tearful look of the mother on the day of the father's wrath.
3b. “He whom I enclose with my name…”
He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon. I am ever busy building this wall all around; and as this wall goes up into the sky day by day I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.
I take pride in this great wall, and I plaster it with dust and sand lest a least hole should be left in this name; and for all the care I take I lose sight of my true being.
3c. “The song that I came to sing…”
The song that I came to sing remains unsung to this day.
The time has not come true, the words have not been rightly set.
The blossom has not opened; only the wind is sighing by.
I have not seen his face, nor have I listened to his voice.
I live in the hope of meeting him; but this meeting is not yet.
4. On the Seashore
Mother, I shall weave a chain of pearls for thy neck with my tears of sorrow.
The stars have wrought their anklets of light, but mine will hang upon thy breast.
For this my sorrow is mine own, and thou rewardest me with grace.
4b. “On the day when the lotus bloomed…”
On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not.
Only now and again a sadness fell upon me, and I started up from my dream and felt a sweet fragrance in the south wind.
That vague sweetness made my heart ache with longing and it seemed to me that it was the summer seeking for its completion.
I knew not then that it was so near, that it was mine, and that this perfect sweetness had blossomed in the depth of my own heart.
4c. “On the seashore of endless worlds…”
On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. The infinite sky is motionless and the restless water is boisterous.
On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. They know not how to swim, they know not how to cast nets.
On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships get wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play.
On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children.
5. Ages Bloom
5a. “Let all the strains of joy…”
Let all the strains of joy mingle in my last song – the joy that makes the earth flow over in the riotous excess of the grass, the joy that sets the twin brothers, life and death, dancing over the wide world, the joy that sweeps in with the tempest, shaking and waking all life with laughter, the joy that sits still on the lotus of pain, and the joy that throws everything it has upon the dust, and knows not a word.
5b. “The same stream…”
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.
It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.
It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow.
I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.
5c. “Time is endless…”
Time is endless in thy hands, my lord.
Days and nights pass and ages bloom and fade like flowers. Thou knowest how to wait.
And thus it is that time goes by.
We have no time to lose. We are too poor to be late.
But we find that yet there is time.