The Hope of Loving: Some Notes on the Words

“The Hope of Loving,” our concert of choral works by Jake Runestad (b. 1986), obviously focuses on the music, but Runestad clearly has a gift for choosing wonderful texts to inspire him. These “notes” take a closer look at several of the authors.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. The illnesses of his childhood left him in delicate health for the rest of his short life but also encouraged his imagination, creativity, and love of adventure—he started making up stories and poems before he could even write. Despite several physical breakdowns, he traveled all over Europe, the United States, and the South Pacific, settling at last in Samoa. His creative output ranged just as widely, from adventure stories (Treasure Island), to tales of horror (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), to poems for children (A Child’s Garden of Verses), and more serious adult poems, like “Fear not, dear friend.” Like many of his other posthumously published poems, this one shows a generosity in graciously letting go of those he loves so that they can freely live their own lives.

“The Hope of Loving” is adapted from Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, by Daniel Ladinsky, an American poet and interpreter of mystical poetry. This work offers Ladinsky’s re-imaginings of 5 mystical poets: Rabia Basri (c. 714-801), a female Sufi mystic who became a Muslim saint; St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), the rich young man who renounced worldly things and became the humble priest, founding the Franciscan order, communing with all of God’s creatures, and receiving the stigmata of Christ; Hafez (1315-1390), perhaps the greatest of all Persian poets, equally obsessed with sacred and worldly beauty and love; St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), the Carmelite friar most famous for describing the soul’s lonely journey toward God in “Dark Night of the Soul”; and the German theologian Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-c. 1328), who envisioned the whole of creation as an overflowing of God’s love.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Wendell Berry (b. 1934), and John Muir (1838-1914) share several qualities, which makes a “triptych” of songs based on their words especially apt. All three were passionate about the natural environment in general but also specific places. All three viewed the world through a spiritual lens, while not formally following a religion. And all three turned to activism when they felt such actions were necessary.

Thoreau rarely strayed far from his native Concord, Massachusetts, though he did venture north as far as Quebec and Maine. In fact, Walden Pond, where he lived alone for over a year, is less than 2 miles from Concord. The New England landscape nourished him physically and emotionally. Though considered a member of the Transcendentalist movement, he had a deep interest in Eastern spirituality, especially Hindu-ism. He became an activist largely because of his abolitionist views. Because of his belief that the Mexican-American War would lead to the expansion of slavery, he refused to pay taxes that would go toward the war; this led to his spending a night in jail, which became the basis of his essay “On Civil Disobedience.” Rich as his published works are, his journals provide even more insight into his complex inner life.

Although he traveled to Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship and has worked on both coasts, Berry found his special place in his native Kentucky. Working on the family farm meshed with his interest in preserving the wider environment. Although he personally knew Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, he has described himself instead as “a person who takes the Gospel seriously,” criticizing Christian churches that ignore environmental degradation. He has used his platform as an award-winning writer to oppose the Vietnam War, nuclear power plants, and mountaintop removal coal mining. For Berry, the natural world offers an anchor, a home, a refuge.

Muir found his spiritual home far from his native Scotland, which he and his family left when he was 11. After growing up in Wisconsin and hiking through the Southeastern United States, he traveled to California when he was 30. There he discovered his true passion—the wild mountains of the Sierras. He built a cabin in the Yosemite Valley and supported himself as a guide to the surrounding mountains. Perhaps in reaction against what he saw as his father’s oppressive Calvinism, Muir looked to nature and wilderness for his personal salvation. Indeed, Ralph Waldo Emerson saw Muir as the embodiment of a prophet-naturalist that he had long hoped America would produce. Although Muir eventually married and worked a farm outside of San Francisco, his passion for unspoiled nature remained, and he returned to the Sierras as often as he could. When he saw signs of human encroachment, he actively worked to preserve the wilderness and sought to establish Yosemite as a national park. He also co-founded the Sierra Club. For Muir, wilderness was where he encountered the divine and found transcendence. He shared many of his insights in published works in the last decade of his life, but those works grew out of the journals he had kept all along, as do the words for “Come to the Woods.”

English writer Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) is probably best known for his ballad poems, like “The Highwayman,” but he also wrote plays and fiction. His poem “Prayer,” set here as “Let My Love Be Heard,” may seem atypical of his work. In reality, religion eventually came to play a large part in his life, especially after the death of his first wife and his conversion to Catholicism. His novel The Final Voyage (1930), in which a young girl dies in spite of scientific interventions, concludes that only Faith can offer a flicker of light against the darkness—a conclusion borne out in this song as well.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) had a lifelong passion for music that comes through in many of his titles, from “Song of Myself” to “Drum Taps” (his Civil War poems) to the “Death Carol” in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” Largely self-educated, Whitman began experimenting around 1850 with his own original form of poetry, which first appeared in Leaves of Grass (1855). He continued revising his poems and adding new ones to it for the rest of his life.

Many of his poems come across as a unique blend of precise prose and passionate chanting—they sounds nothing like works by his contemporaries. In long lines, Whitman addresses his readers directly, in the first person, as though he viscerally needs to communicate everything he sees and hears and feels. The full text of “Proud Music of the Storm” (which runs to 9 pages in the 1892 edition) shows how he found music not just in classical and sacred works, folk songs, all sorts of instruments, and beloved human voices, but throughout nature—animals, plants, water, fire—and even in the sounds of battle. The full poem invokes musical forms from every continent and historical period. Whitman mentions favorite hymns, operas (he attended regularly in New York), and even particular singers who moved him. He was only stating the unvarnished truth when he wrote, “to me all sounds became music.”

~ Susan Wladaver-Morgan