The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs
Dedicated to Janet Fairbank
For voice and closed piano (1942; 2:56 min.)

John Cage's "The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs"
This lovely song is adapted from Finnegans Wake, Page 556, lines 1-22. It is written for voice, using three pitches and closed piano. Yes, that means literally three pitches and a closed piano -- the vocal line is muted, ritualistic, almost like a Gregorian chant; and the accompaniment is created by tapping and knocking on the wooden cover over the inaccessible piano keys. The overall effect is quite haunting, and brings to my mind hooded figures walking slowly through a dark forest, the wind slowly knocking tree branches together....

Lyrics

"The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs"

night by silentsailing night. . .
Isobel. . .
wildwoods' eyes and primarose hair,
quietly,
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 'twil be,
win me, woo me, wed me,
ah weary me!
deeply,
Now evencalm lay sleeping; night
Isobel
Sister Isobel
Saintette Isobel
madame Isa
Veuve La belle


Notes

The origin of the song is a long passage from Finnegans Wake, which I will reprint below with the relevant text highlighted in green:

FW 556.1 - 556.22
night by silentsailing night while infantina Isobel (who will be
blushing all day to be, when she growed up one Sunday,
Saint Holy and Saint Ivory, when she took the veil, the
beautiful presentation nun, so barely twenty, in her pure coif,
sister Isobel, and next Sunday, Mistlemas, when she looked
a peach, the beautiful Samaritan, still as beautiful and still
in her teens, nurse Saintette Isabelle, with stiffstarched cuffs but
on Holiday, Christmas, Easter mornings when she wore a wreath,
the wonderful widow of eighteen springs, Madame Isa Veuve la
Belle
, so sad but lucksome in her boyblue's long black with
orange blossoming weeper's veil) for she was the only girl they
loved, as she is the queenly pearl you prize, because of the way
the night that first we met she is bound to be, methinks, and not
in vain, the darling of my heart, sleeping in her april cot, within
her singachamber, with her greengageflavoured candywhistle
duetted to the crazyquilt, Isobel, she is so pretty, truth to tell,
wildwood's eyes and primarose hair, quietly, 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 blowingflower stilled, as fain would she anon, for soon again
'twill be, win me, woo me, wed me, ah weary me! deeply, now,
evencalm lay sleeping;

Notice that the title of the song, "The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs," occurs in the original text, but is not found in the lyrics of the song itself.

CD Information

There are more versions of "Widow" on CD than I care to count, but a few seem to pop up over and over again: Cathy Berberian's on Cathy Berberian Collection by Wergo, Joëlle Léandre's on The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs by Montaigne, Joan La Barbara's on Singing Through John Cage by New Albion, Paul Hillier's Theatre of Voices "male" version on Harmonia Mundi's Litany for the Whale, and the recent Anna Clementi version on the MD&G Schleiermacher Cage series. As all I have access to are the Hillier and La Barabara, I will comment on them below.
Paul Hillier's "Widow" is more somber in tone, more ritualistic. The singing is, of course, deeper; but the accompanying thumping on closed piano is more varied and sparse, giving the song a haunted atmosphere. Joan La Barbara's version lets in more light, she touches the words with more feeling if perhaps less precision; and the piano seems more present: it is "played" faster, louder, and with more regularity. Because they are two very distinct and different renditions, it would be difficult to recommend one over the other. However, as the La Barbara disc also contains "Nacht Upon Nowth," it may be more attractive to a Joyce enthusiast; but I feel the Hillier disc is more varied, and musically speaking it represents the stronger overall selection.
You may listen to sound samples and/or purchase John Cage CDs online from Amazon.com below:

Singing Through- Vocal Compositions by John Cage (Has "Widow" and "Nowth")
Joan La Barbara (Singer) / New Albion / Released 1990

Music by John Cage for Prepared Piano
Gerald English (Singer) / Tall Poppies / Released 1993

MagnifiCathy: The Many Voices of Cathy Berberian
Cathy Berberian (Singer) / Wergo / Released 1993

20th Century Voices in America
Rosalind Rees (Singer) / Vox / Released 1995

The 25-Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage
Arline Carmen (Singer) / Wergo / Released 1995

Cage: Litany for the Whale
Paul Hillier (Singer) / Harmonia Mundi / Released 1998

John Cage: The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs and Ryoanji
Joëlle Léandre (Singer) / Disques Montaigne - #782121 / Released 2000

John Cage: Voice & Piano (Has "Widow" and "Nowth")
Anna Clementi (Singer), Steffen Schleiermacher (Piano) / MD&G / Released 2001

More Cage

Roaratorio -- (1979) This large and chaotic work incorporates phrases from Finnegans Wake into a tapestry of noise, voice, song, and Irish traditional music.

Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Eric Satie: An Alphabet -- (1982) A radio play featuring James Joyce as a character.

"Nowth Upon Nacht" -- (1984) A song with lyics directly adapted from Finnegans Wake.


--Allen B. Ruch
3 June 2003
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