Songs of Travel (1988)


  • 8
  • Soprano and Cello

Program Notes

Songs of Travel is a setting of three poems by the Chinese poet Po Chü-i, who lived from 772 to 846. These translations are by Arthur Waley, and are taken from his book Translations from the Chinese, published in 1919. Most of the following remarks are paraphrased from Waley’s commentary to the poems.

One of the world’s great poets, Po Chü-i served as an imperial scholar and a political official; he was fortunate to have enjoyed great popularity during his lifetime. Arthur Waley says in describing his work: “The most striking characteristic of Po Chü-i’s poetry is its verbal simplicity. There is a story that he was in the habit of reading his poems to an old peasant woman and altering any expression which she could not understand. . . Like Confucius, he regarded art solely as a method of conveying instruction. . . He accordingly valued his didactic poems far above his other work; but it is obvious that much of his best poetry conveys no moral whatever. He admits, indeed, that among his ‘miscellaneous stanzas’ many were inspired by some momentary sensation or passing event. ‘A single laugh or a single sigh were rapidly translated into verse’.”

Chinese traditional poetry closely resembles traditional English verse; its lines have a fixed number of syllables and rhyme is obligatory. Waley decided not to use rhyme in his translations, so as not to “sacrifice sense to sound.” The poems which I have selected deal with aspects of the experience of travel; they are by turn joyful, cynical, reflective and sometimes melancholy in tone.

Songs of Travel was written for soprano Therese Costes and cellist George Meanwell during January and February of 1988; they gave the premier performance in Winnipeg on March 9, 1988, at the West End Cultural Centre.