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My great-grandfather was a longtime newspaper editor and a voracious reader, and at the center of his bookshelf long lay a well-worn and bookmark-addled tome containing the collected poems of Robert W. Service, the “Bard of the Yukon.” Although not Canadian by birth, Service was nonetheless drawn to the beautiful, hostile, and largely unexplored landscapes of the Yukon territory, and he turned his pen towards capturing the essence of rugged frontier life. This is the second of hopefully many Service settings to come; my first was a setting of the darkly humorous ballad “The Cremation of Sam McGee” for solo baritone and percussion ensemble.
The imagery in “The Pines” ranges from dark, dreary, and thoroughly desolate all the way to rousing shouts of victory and triumph over the ravages of time. Like most Service poems, his ability to conjure extremely evocative and vivid images is what drew me in enough to pursue an appropriate musical setting, especially as the cadences of his stanzas reflected something thoroughly lyrical and inherently musical to my mind’s ear. The main motif of the piece is in the Dorian mode, and its characteristic raised sixth scale degree lends the piece an atmosphere that’s simultaneously dark and bright, as the mode lies halfway between the brightness of Lydian and the darkness of Locrian.
The poem is originally two stanzas longer than what is set here, which were removed for concerns of time and over potentially problematic diction.
We sleep in the sleep of ages, the bleak, barbarian pines;
The gray moss drapes us like sages, and closer we lock our lines,
And deeper we clutch through the gelid gloom where never a sunbeam shines.
On the flanks of the storm-gored ridges are our black battalions massed;
We surge in a host to the sullen coast, and we sing in the ocean blast;
From empire of sea to empire of snow we grip our empire fast.
Wind of the East, Wind of the West, wandering to and fro,
Chant your songs in our topmost boughs, that the sons of men may know
The peerless pine was the first to come, and the pine will be last to go!
We pillar the halls of perfumed gloom; we plume where the eagles soar;
The North-wind swoops from the brooding Pole, and our ancients crash and roar;
But where one falls from the crumbling walls shoots up a hardy score.
We spring from the gloom of the canyon's womb; in the valley's lap we lie;
From the white foam-fringe, where the breakers cringe to the peaks that tusk the sky,
We climb, and we peer in the crag-locked mere that gleams like a golden eye.
Gain to the verge of the hog-back ridge where the vision ranges free:
Pines and pines and the shadow of pines as far as the eye can see;
A steadfast legion of stalwart knights in dominant empery.
Sun, moon and stars give answer; shall we not staunchly stand,
Even as now, forever, wards of the wilder strand,
Sentinels of the stillness, lords of the last, lone land?