Meditation At Oyster River (2003)
for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra (or Piano)
From "Meditation At Oyster River" by Theodore Roethke

1. The Ripple (4:42) 



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YouTube Video Oyster River Movement 1 (Libretto and notes below)   


Over the low, barnacled, elephant-colored rocks
Come the first tide ripples, moving, almost without sound, toward me,
Running along the narrow furrows of the shore, the rows of dead
Then a runnel behind me, creeping closer,
Alive with tiny striped fish, and young crabs climbing in and out of the

No sound from the bay. No violence.
Even the gulls quiet on the far rocks,
Silent, in the deepening light,
Their cat-mewing over,
Their child-whimpering.

At last one long undulant ripple,
Blue black from where I am sitting,
Makes almost a wave over a barrier of small stones,
Slapping lightly against a sunken log.
I dabble my toes in the brackish foam sliding forward,
Then retire to a rock higher up on the cliffside.

The wind slackens, light as a moth fanning a stone —
A twilight wind, light as a child’s breath,
Turning not a leaf, not a ripple.

The dew revives on the beach grass;
The salt-soaked wood of a fire crackles;
A fish raven turns on its perch (a dead tree in the river mouth),
Its wings catching a last glint of the reflected sunlight.

MEDITATION AT OYSTER RIVER was written in the summer of 2003.  Though I have not written a great deal of vocal music, I have been drawn to Theodore Roethke's last book of poetry, The Far Field, for at least twenty five years.  In the early 1980's, I based a violin sonata on selected passages from the title poem.  I am drawn to the collection's natural imagery and insight.  And, though the prevailing subject matter centers around the poet's impending death, I have always been taken by the poetry's optimism and celebration of life.

As an artist, I sympathize with the poet in his identification of his life energy with his art.  Though the end of his life brings despair, it also brings inspiration.  That inspiration allows him to treasure his existence and come to terms with its limits.  

The poem, Meditation At Oyster River, seems to me to be a metaphor for how that life-nourishing inspiration emerged from under the shadow of death.  At first, it is just a single ripple, barely noticeable through the stillness.  But a lifetime of experience identifies its meaning.  A lifetime of seasons identifies the illusive scent of spring.  The poet sits on the riverbank and waits with patient excitement for what he knows is coming.  His tired body disguising his tingling flesh.  As the inspiration rushes over, he is revitalized and feels young again, turning his despair into wonder and irony.

After choosing the text, it still took me quite a while to come to terms with it, but I found this project to be enormously fulfilling, even cleansing.  I has been about 30 years since I last wrote a set of songs for my sister, Eleanor Stallcop/Horrox.  My views on many things both musical and non-musical have changed in the meantime.  However, my respect and admiration for her talents and abilities have grown steadily.  Hopefully, it does not take another 30 years for the next set.

"Meditation AT Oyster River", copyright © 1960 by Beatrice Roethke as administratrix of the estate of Theodore Roethke, from THE COLLECTED POEMS OF THEODORE ROETHKE by Theodore Roethke.  Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.