“Excelsior” is a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
. Though it is reasonably famous in its own right, several composers have also set it to music. The most famous musical setting was composed and arranged by Irish composer Michael William Balfe
The poem, having been written and published in 1841, is in the public domain and can easily be found in books and online, and while analysts have said that Balfe’s musical setting is the most famous
I haven’t been able to find recordings of it anywhere. It also apparently remains in the repertoire of many large choral groups. I have found precisely one recording on iTunes, the last track on a collection of music from the Victorian era. Hilariously, iTunes sorts it into the pre-existing "'90s music" playlist -- because it is from the 1890s.
The poem’s rhyming scheme is AABBC DDEEC, with ‘C’ being the refrain-like “Excelsior.” It is a narrative about a youth whose tragic flaw is his idealism and apparent inability to give up on anything, even if it involves his own destruction. Longfellow’s use of various foreshadowing characters, including what we might call “typical” omen-deliverers like peasants and the elderly, furthers the notion that the youth is particularly attached to his goal.
Longfellow indicates early on that the youth may not have a family and suggests that though he longs for such a thing, as is indicated from his mention of homes and the maiden’s offer of companionship, he is still drawn to the mountain. There is clearly inherent danger involved in scaling this particular mountain, as he is warned multiple times of possible risks (and even specifically of the possibility of an avalanche). He responds to each of the concerns with “Excelsior,” which is Latin for “upward” or “higher.” It’s the only thing he says, and the fact that it’s emblazoned on the banner he carries with him indicates that it’s his personal motto and life philosophy.
The youth makes decent headway up the mountain as the poem draws to a close but is never satisfied with his progress and is eventually killed. When his body is discovered buried in the snow by a dog, he is still holding his banner, effectively proving his devotion to his goal. The poem concludes by suggesting that his idealism and determination have gone with him to the afterlife. (Of course, some have also interpreted this as meaning that he strove for something higher than the great beyond.)
Balfe’s setting, which was composed and published around 1843, is arranged for at least two voices and accompaniment (usually piano, though orchestral versions are also supposedly popular). Arrangements for different vocal ranges exist, though the piece’s vocal parts generally require two full ranges. In other words, the most common two-part arrangements are usually for tenor and baritone/bass or soprano and alto. SATB arrangements are also popular.
The piece remains true to the poem’s words and meter; the only modification Balfe made was to the fifth verse. In order to preserve continuity between the music and the lyrics’ syllabic patterns, he added an extra “O stay” to the first line. As a result, “rest” is not sung opposite “breast,” creating a small disruption in Longfellow’s original rhyming scheme. It doesn’t sound out of place when placed opposite “said,” however, and the disruption is minimal. He may also have done this to increase the sense of urgency among those who attempted to convince the young man not to try to climb the mountain.
One other slight modification involves the repetition of “Excelsior!” during the chorus – usually four times. The musical setting allows for repeated use of the phrase whereas Longfellow may have thought that writing it out several times in a poetic form to be redundant. Such repetition allows for greater emphasis on the term and its meaning. For instance, it is repeated (rather triumphantly) sixteen times after the final verse. While one part at a time sings the verses (though I’m not entirely familiar with arrangements that call for more than one vocal part), all parts sing the chorus. This is sometimes done in canon form.
In the arrangement I have, the first two verses are sung by the higher of the two ranges, the second two by the lower range. They then alternate and sing every other verse until the seventh verse. From this point on, the verses are sung together. The piece also modulates to and from different keys as the vocal ranges sing their respective parts. Though transposed versions are always easy to find or create, there are always two different keys in the piece itself.
Recordings of this (or any, really) setting are extremely hard to find. I asked the incredibly knowledgeable people who work in an extremely large music store’s classical music section and they stared at me blankly. If anyone has any information as to where to get one without sending what seem like huge sums of money in currencies I’ve never heard of to countries to which I’ve never been, let me know. Please. The piece is quite stirring and I’ve been living off of a MIDI.
There are also various parody versions of the poem and musical arrangement. The most popular involves pigs and beer. I'm not sure either.
I found the sheet music while randomly browsing through an online public domain music site. I had never heard of the poem before this point but after searching around I discovered that it’s actually quite popular. The piece is, as mentioned, quite stirring and sounds as though it should be played loudly.
I’d like to actually hear it sung, as opposed to listening to a version in which the vocal parts are being played by synthesized saxophones. Never ye mind, for I have finally heard it sung, albeit by two men who put a bit too much thrust into their "r"s for my liking. Nonetheless! Excelsior!
And finally (because including it earlier on led to unsightly white space):
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
1841 (and in the public domain)
The shades of night were falling fast,
as through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, 'mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
His brow was sad; his eye beneath,
Flashed like a falchion from its sheath,
And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,
In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan,
"Try not the Pass!" the old man said;
"Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
The roaring torrent is deep and wide!"
And loud that clarion voice replied,
"Oh, stay," the maiden said, "and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast!"
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,
"Beware the pine tree's withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!"
This was the peasant's last goodnight,
A voice replied, far up the height,
At break of day, as heavenward
The pious monks of Saint Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air,
A traveller, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
That banner with the strange device,
There, in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell, like a falling star,
Excelsior! You Fathead! (www.flicklives.com/Glossary/Excelsior/excelsior.htm ) 10 May 2005
62. Excelsior. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Yale Book of American Verse (www.bartleby.com/102/62.html) 10 May 2005
Greatest Hits 1820-60 (Variety Music Calvacade) http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/sm2html/sm2great3.html 10 May 2005
Michael William Balfe (1808-1870): His Life and Career (www.victorianweb.org/mt/balfe/bio1.html) 10 May 2005