Donald McCullough | Contraries: The Human Condition

Contemporary composer Donald McCullough is also a practitioner of the choral arts, both as a trained singer and a choral conductor. He has built recognition for his compositions and arrangements with performances throughout Europe and the United States, including over 250 performances of his Holocaust Cantata: Songs from the Camps. More than 20 of his works have been published. His choral compositions, such as the Holocaust Cantata and Let My People Go: A Spiritual Journey along the Underground Railroad, vividly raise awareness of oppressed peoples. He received an ASCAPlus award in 2008.

For Contraries: The Human Condition, McCullough chose the poetry of the early 19th-century poet and painter, William Blake (1757 – 1827). The selected poems reflect Blake’s exploration of the “secular soul,” a concept of inner strength motivated by personal ethics. The music portrays the difficult balancing of the “contraries” within human nature with intriguing asymmetry and dissonance.

Blake, raised in the Protestant Dissenting tradition emphasizing individual conscience, believed each person must go deeply within to shed the effects of what he viewed as superficial collective consciousness. “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence,”1 he said, regarding his theory of opposites (contraries). Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794) is an illustrated collection of poems that portray his search to find his own moral and spiritual values. They “[give] expression to the extremes of ecstasy and despair in the human soul.”2

The first three songs of Contraries, selected from Blake’s Songs of Innocence, portray childhood’s naïve spontaneity, openness, and connectedness, as contrasted with the fear, withdrawal, and isolation of adulthood portrayed in the last three songs. The first song, “The Blossom,” is set for four-part women’s voices. It appears to be a simple expression of joy and sadness, represented by the sparrow and the robin near a blossom. Was Blake dismissing the quaint Romantic tradition of flower symbolism, such as lily for purity or red rose for passion, by not specifying the kind of flower? McCullough gives a restful harmony to the blossom’s personification at the word “bosom.” As the poem turns from the sparrow’s targeted flight to the robin’s inexplicable sorrow, the music veers into just enough dissonance to put us on guard. The opened blossom representing either sexual passion or its emotional aftermath can provide only a momentary haven.

The Laughing Song” personifies flora, fauna, and the air itself with a playful tone in the first stanza. The second stanza (“When the meadows laugh”) begins in the same innocent, childlike spirit, but dissonance appears at the happy sound of girls’ laughter, suggesting that innocence is transitory. The last stanza hints at a temporal bond between the girls and the “painted birds” hidden in the shade around a table spread with bounty taken from nature. The phrase “Come live and be merry” invites us not to take ourselves so seriously.

“The Lamb,” a sweet soprano solo, could be a nursery rhyme or lilting child’s song, yet it asks a profound question: “Little Lamb, who made thee?” The rhetorical answer, framed by “He calls himself a Lamb,” harkens back to childhood faith in a kind divinity.

The last three poems are from Blake’s Songs of Experience, in which the darkened vision of adulthood overpowers the naïveté of childhood. Blake explored the links between lost innocence and the socio-religious mores of his time. His quest would have a profound effect on his marriage. He did not believe in the Church’s teachings about the divinity of marriage. He explored alternative movements dedicated to releasing visions through erotic meditation, which led him to propose adding a second wife to their household, claiming it was an Old Testament tradition. His more conventional wife, deeply hurt and offended, refused. “He fumed out at his wife a theory of matrimony preposterously arrogant and patriarchal.”3 Did Blake actually participate in the sexual activities of the various groups with which he met? We may never know. After his death, Catherine and his executor destroyed his most radical sexual, religious, and political manuscripts and drawings.

“For Catherine Blake, the increasing charges [in her time] that women were vulnerable to sexual depravity created an uncomfortable context, for her husband and his friends were jauntily exploring new territories of sexual, spiritual and psychological liberation.”4 Blake filled his artwork and writings with veiled and direct scorn of Catherine, who would not dedicate herself to “the maintenance of prolonged ‘virile potency’,” which he believed to be “crucial to the visionary process.”5 Catherine and William apparently learned to live with their differences, because they maintained a 45-year marriage.

The Garden of Love” is a setting of the last three stanzas of Blake’s five-stanza poem of that title. The song begins with the foreboding phrase “Thou shalt not!” Then the back-story unfolds. Male and female voices tell of trying to recapture the freshness of first love. Instead they must confront the influences that crimp and distort love, represented by the chapel. Its door is closed, typical in Blake’s time, to all but paying church members. The repressive phrase “Thou shalt not” is inscribed above the door and becomes internalized in those who see it, first as a whisper and then as a loud chant. Tombstones cover the area where flowers used to grow. In his illustration of “The Garden of Love,” Blake shows an ugly tangle of vines around the graves. Black-clad priests haunt the scene with a punitive presence. Blake’s condemnation of the Church’s censorious influence could not be clearer.

The Sick Rose” is a disenchanted address to love. Blake draws its central image from the dying worm in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a work that influenced him deeply. The ominous rhythm of Blake’s lines portrays pleasure short-circuited. A storm howls through the music, reflecting the 19th-century belief that corrupting matter in the air, like Blake’s worm, caused disease. With skin-crawling chromatics, the worm, at first benign in its seeming invisibility, evolves into a serpent suggestive of a phallus and its corruption of Eve. Driven by passion but mired in forced secrecy, the would-be lover destroys love. The tragic disconnect between physical and emotional passion is a brutally honest reflection on a relationship gone awry.

The Poison Tree” vibrates with anger, engaging the full orchestra and chorus in creating a riveting, staccato effect. Blake defines the difference between friendship and enmity, between letting go of anger and holding onto it.  Pride permeates the poem, symbolized by “an apple bright” grown on a tree nurtured by fear and deceit. Opinions vary on the interpretation of this poem, but the “pole” may be a double entendre: Blake’s illustration of this poem shows the tree as a branchless, serpentine shape, representing the hypocrisy that puts forth deadly fruit. The pole could also be interpreted as the polestar. If the North Star was not visible that night, the foe could enter the garden unseen to steal the apple.6

In talking about his choice of poetry for Contraries, McCullough told SF Choral, “Blake believed men and women were the source of all wisdom, power, and love, and that they should live up to their amazing potential. He believed that the dogma of the Church of England and the mores of English society stifled creative and imaginative thinking, cheating men and women of one of their natural birthrights.”

— By Carol Talbeck

  1. The Unholy Bible: Blake, Jung, and the Collective Unconscious, by June Singer. Sigo Press, Boston, Mass., 1986.
  2. Singer, in The Unholy Bible.
  3. Why Mrs. Blake Cried: William Blake and the Sexual Basis of Spiritual Vision, by Marsha Keith Schuchard. Century, London, 2006.
  4. According to Schuchard in Why Mrs. Blake Cried. Women in this era who revealed that they had erotic feelings were told they might suffer brain damage if they did not submit to purging, fasting, and bloodletting and forego literature, art, and music.
  5. Ibid.
  6. This idea appears in “Critical Essay on A Poison Tree” by Neil Heims in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.