A setting by John Cage of words taken from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for voice and piano. In this elegantly simple song, the voice is confined to merely three pitches and the case of the piano is played percussively. It is a gorgeous gem of American art song, and a convincing demonstration of Cage’s musical debt to Erik Satie.
night, by silentsailing night . . .
Isobel . . .
wildwood’s eyes and primarose hair,
all the woods so wild,
in mauves of moss and daphnedews,
how all so still she lay neath of the whitethorn,
child of tree,
like some losthappy leaf,
like blowing flower stilled,
as fain would she anon,
for soon again twill be,
win me, woo me, wed me,
ah weary me!
Now evencalm lay sleeping; night
Veuve La belle
This composition dates from November 1942, and was written at the behest of the singer Janet Fairbanks. According to his book, Empty Words, Cage had owned a copy of Finnegans Wake for nearly three years at this point, and had not read it, this book upon which many of his works would be based.
The text of the song is excepted from the paragraph at the top of page 556 of the Viking Press edition. Biographical information about the circumstances of this composition from David Revill's The Roaring Silence, published in 1992 by Arcade Publishing and Cage's Empty Words: Writings '73-'78, published in 1979 by Weselyan University Press.