Why should a beautiful view of a morning sunrise elicit a usual wonder from most of us, while from Plath it results in a poetic declaration for the ages? Because Plath’s baseline of angst “forced” all of the world around her into icons of her ecstatic agony.
I believe this poem is actually about inspiration. Anyone who has ever been caught up in a moment of overwhelming inspiration knows how much from beyond one it feels. For Plath in her final years and months to experience such a constant stream of inspiration must have felt astounding, elating, dumbfounding.
Her mind — the sky in this poem — is lit up by a sunrise that she sees as “poppies in October” — that is, out of season, a summer flower in the waning month of the year. She sees the light through the clouds as “a red heart” astoundingly blooming through the coat of “the woman in the ambulance.” It is a “love gift utterly unasked for.” Can you imagine how it would feel to have poem after poem of unique power “come through you?” She asks: “O my God what am I /That these late mouths should cry open / In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.”
The writing of this piece, my first using an octatonic scale, kicked off Plath Songs as a project. I wrote it in late June 2012 at the Lehigh University Summer Choral Composer’s Forum, with Steven Stucky as the guest faculty. His attention to the most minute detail of each students’ work impressed me deeply. I had struggled to launch the very first phrase with proper pacing, and after the dress rehearsal before the premiere, he came up to me and said “quarter note triplets.” Yes, that was the answer. Triplets on a single beat spit out the words too fast, and we had already ruled out three 8ths, which accented the wrong syllable. His solution was perfect.
I loved writing this piece, with the delicate, rippling colors that the octatonic scale lent to the sixteenth note patterns in the piano. It was like a new world, exploring which harmonic areas were “available” in the octatonic set I had chosen. Stucky had a great quote about the octatonic scale, which he mentioned one morning to our class. “Writing to an octatonic scale is like moving to California…you don’t want to move back.”
Commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale
Premiere: June 2, 2013, Grant Gershon, conducting