From Cycles of Eternity (2017) is a Song Cycle for Treble Voices (SSSSAA). The third song, “Life,” was commissioned by In Mulieribus, directed by Dr. Anna Song, in celebration of their Tenth Anniversary Season. Henrietta Cordelia Ray's poetry uses musical language and timeless thematic materials, including: the brevity of our individual lives within the great expanse of time, artistic struggle, our relationship with nature, and collective dreams of freedom. As an African-American poet of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, Ray expresses discontent with her earthly experiences while also looking forward to the, “splendors past the sun” and being “gathered to eternity’s expanse… at the Father’s call.” Musically, this piece draws from both the present and past to further highlight the cyclic nature of human experience.
-- Notes by Andrea Reinkemeyer
From Cycles of Eternity
We climb the slopes of life with throbbing heart,
And eager pulse, like children toward a star.
Sweet siren music cometh from afar,
To lure us on meanwhile. Responsive start
The nightingales to richer song than Art
Can ever teach. No passing shadows mar
Awhile the dewy skies; no inner jar
Of conflict bids us with our quest to part.
We see adown the distance, rainbow-arched,
What melting aisles of liquid light and bloom!
We hasten, tremulous, with lips all parched,
And eyes wide-stretched, nor dream of coming gloom.
Enough that something held almost divine
Within us ever stirs. Can we repine?
The subtlest strain a great musician weaves,
Cannot attain in rhythmic harmony
To music in his soul. May it not be
Celestial lyres send hints to him? He grieves
That half the sweetness of the song, he leaves
Unheard in the transition. Thus do we
Yearn to translate the wondrous majesty
Of some rare mood, when the rapt soul receives
A vision exquisite. Yet who can match
The sunset’s iridescent hues? Who sing
The skylark’s ecstasy so seraph-fine?
We struggle vainly, still we fain would catch
Such rifts amid life’s shadows, for they bring
Glimpses ineffable of things divine.
Life! Ay, what is it? E’en a moment spun
From cycles of eternity. And yet,
What wrestling ’mid the fever and the fret
Of tangled purposes and hopes undone!
What affluence of love! What vict’ries won
In agonies of silence, ere trust met
A manifold fulfillment, and the wet,
Beseeching eyes saw splendors past the sun!
What struggle in the web of circumstance,
And yearning in the wingèd music! All,
One restless strife from fetters to be free;
Till, gathered to eternity’s expanse,
Is that brief moment at the Father’s call.
Life! Ay, at best, ’tis but a mystery!
-- Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1849-1916)
Aspiration is in the public domain (1910)
Limitations was published in Ray's book, "Poems"
(The Grafton Press, 1910).
Life is in the public domain (1893)