Voices Under Milk Wood
Fifteen songs for medium high voice and piano
Under Milk Wood,
the radio play by Dylan Thomas, remains under copyright. The songs
were composed as sketches towards a chamber opera intended for ten
singers, and correspondence with the estate through the
International Copyright Bureau proved ineffective at that time at
gaining non-exclusive rights to edit the full text into a shorter
libretto. At the time of corresponding with the estate, from
1991-92, the songs and some additional sketches were already
composed to test the premise, and given by the composer at a free
public recital at UCLA in that year. In upcoming years, I will
perhaps again pursue the estate and its executors with this purpose,
as I continue to add sketches towards it through the years. However
dealing with other than a principal artist over his work is
daunting, for bureaucracies are usually less sensitive to artistic
issues and temperaments, and more interested in asset value and the
control thereof. GB/2005
DRAFT OF A RATIONALE
radio play, Under Milk Wood, entered this world a literary classic.
Since his debut reading of it at the Y's Poetry center in New York
City, the play has enjoyed repeated readings, airings, staged
productions, audio recordings, and been filmed in a screenplay
adaptation by Andrew Sinclair.
As with the body of Thomas'
work, and in his own words, it is "prose [and poetry] with blood
In 1947, before Under Milk Wood, Thomas wrote in a
letter to his parents about creating a libretto to a "full length
grand opera for William Walton." (Ferris, Letters) That
proposed collaboration never became real.
In 1953, Aldous
Huxley, librettist for The Rake's Progress, suggested Thomas as
librettist to Igor Stravinsky. An opera was to have been
commissioned by Sarah Caldwell and the Opera Workshop of Boston
University. In a letter to E. F. Bozman, Thomas foretold his
upcoming success with the "Stravinsky libretto," as he called it.
(Ferris, Letters) When the commission did not come, Stravinsky
suggested they make "a start on their own" in Los Angeles. (Brinnin,
Dylan Thomas in America) Thomas' death intervened.
Thomas' obvious interest in opera -- words in song -- as a medium
for his work is easily documented in his own words. As to his
ongoing plans for Under Milk Wood which were cut short by his death,
composer and friend Daniel Jones wrote "the evening, like the
morning, was to be 'all singing.'" (1974, "Second Preface" to
Under Milk Wood) The quotes around "all singing" in Jones'
Preface report Thomas' view, who was creating "ballads to be sung by
some of the main characters."
Jones, Thomas' first literary
executor and the original copyright trustee, supplied the songs for
the play -- songs whose manuscripts are reproduced in New Directions
Paperback editions. These song settings appear as a regular and
integral part of recorded editions of the play -- one with Thomas as
First Voice. As Jones tells us, more music was planned.
Milk Wood is words and words-with-music. Would Thomas have
sanctioned the play's use as a libretto? I believe most certainly
that he would.
We know certainly that more music was planned,
but never added. And we know Thomas considered himself a potential
librettist. Hence we may ask: was Under Milk Wood to be "all
singing," as one of Thomas' longest and most trusted friends clearly
writes? It is an obvious possibility.
My unpublished song
cycle, Voices Under Milk Wood, based on the play text, was
written in 1989 during my work with Charles Mackerras and the Welsh
National Opera, in Cardiff and on tour throughout south Wales and
England. While living the summer in Wales, I became an ardent
student of Thomas' work. While musical settings of his poetry might
seem a more likely focus for art songs, it was the prose and poetry
-- with blood pressure -- of Under Milk Wood [as an opera setting]
which drew me.
I visited Swansea which knew Thomas' boyhood,
the Pembroke of Mr. Waldo's song, the boat house over the estuary at
Laugharne and the hillside graveyard where he now lies under a
white-washed cross. These places, with the words of the play, were
soil in which my settings are rooted.
The fifteen songs
drawn from the play were intended as a cycle, as an homage to
Thomas. The musical materials are directly melodic, words in the
foreground, to make the characters speak more clearly.
the piece beckons, and, with Daniel Jones, I foresee it as "all
Written for for medium high voice
and piano, the fifteen settings portray different characters and,
while standing alone for a single performer in a recital setting,
would be distributed among the players in a music theater setting.
Most are songs for the character known simply as First Voice, a
narrator. They are:
A Draper Mad With Love
Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard Widow
Oh There's a Face!
Whispers on the Stairs
Mary Ann Sailors
Remember Last Night?
The Children's Song
Polly Garter (singing)
Knock Twice, Jack
In Pembroke City
First Voice Last
The opening of the radio play begins
with a narrator named First Voice. As narrators feature in the play
itself, so they must in an operatic setting. For this the "moonless"
time before dawn is conjured in the rocking movement of a gentle
accompaniment, and the narrator begins to describe the scene. With
so much wondrous text and descriptive words as are Thomas', it is
imagined that an opera setting would involve only the simplest
elements to "stage" Milk Wood and its environs.
In this short cycle , a draper mad
with love, is followed by a thumbnail sketch of one "Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard
Widow" who seems to completely cold and controlling that even her
dead husbands must heed "she who must be obeyed." For this a waltz
in B minor is chosen to set the text, in which the upper and lower
neighbors are a musical pun to hint at the two dead husbands who she
gathers to her side day and night.
After a small requiem for the lost
love of the homely Bessie Bighead, an up tempo song brings on the
uproarious and self-demeaning questions thrown into a mirror suggest
that Lily is both in love and insecure, a truth of life which we
should know well from some lesson in our own past.
After a snarling yet milquetoast of
a husband brings tea to his wife in bed after his "Whispers on the
Stairs," the narrator tells of the oldest of Milk Wood's
inhabitants, Mary Ann Sailors. This simple setting relies for the
most part on a six note "tone row," which in other web pages I have
argued is as reasonable a pre-compositional strategy as the
seemingly "de rigueur" twelve note row which became the "new"
orthodoxy of the twentieth century, so proud of its escape from
tonality that it fashioned a complete cage from which semiotically
understood melody must be "liberated" by the new tonal resurgence
among modern composers who are turning away from the "old" orthodoxy
of the so-called Second Viennese school and its devotees.
This setting uses the row as defined
in the first four notes of the melodic line, D, E, G and A and the
inclusion in the accompaniment of B and C. Of course, by measure
nine, even this tiny orthodoxy gives way to include the subtle
flavor of the "new" B flat, which drives the harmony in common
practice fashion to an F major harmony under the same recurrent four
"The Children's Song," also given to
the narrator, involves seeming dissonances of parallel seconds and
the chromatic bass line, and yet these features only serve to
characterize the tonic C major as an apt setting for the child-like
In time, perhaps the Thomas estate
and International Copyright Bureau will come to see that these
wondrous texts are most apt for a libretto, carefully redacted, and
then Dylan Thomas' dream of an opera to "his" libretto will be
finally realized. When last I corresponded with them, now fully
fourteen years ago, they indicated that they were in discussion with
some "major" composer whose name was not mentioned. Given today's
absence of an opera based on "Under Milk Wood" as of 2005, it seems
another has not solved the libretto and compositional concerns to
make this marvelous work function on the operatic stage.
I shall continue quietly to add to
my settings towards some future time for my estate, perhaps when the
Thomas copyright and the estate's control over it expires, for arts
administrators, attorneys and accountants are not creators of art
and ultimately can only make financial decisions for an estate after
an artist's death. As stated above, I am convinced that Dylan Thomas
would have sanctioned a work such as I proposed and have composed to
date. And in time, perhaps they -- his administrators -- shall too.