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Byrd in Flight

The surplice-vested, five-part choir,
Like sparrows on a five-tiered wire,
Gives flight to canticles of Byrd.
The flocks of lightweight, living notes
Ascend to where celestial thoughts
Send back their echo, and are heard
On earth because of William Byrd.

The varied voices that compose
The choir, in its ordered rows,
Reveal the meaning in the fence
Of notes on which, in music’s words
Are written, winglike, William Byrd’s
Profoundest thoughts and joyful sense
Of heaven’s music’s eloquence.

In complex patterns, feathered notes
Float ceiling-ward from singers’ throats.
They hover there, and still are heard
While silently we pray, then file
Between the voices, up the aisle
Where earth and heaven are briefly blurred
In sacrament, communing while,
Miraculously, souls are stirred
And lift from earth with William Byrd.

From Notes On Time by Cynthia Erlandson

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Summer Sunday Baroque

I’m listening to Sunday Baroque while the robins make
Their morning music near my open window.
Almost before sunrise, they’re calling sleepers to wake.
Could this be a new kind of fugue: the radio
Transmitting the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach,
While the avian choir’s voices interlock—
In exquisite melismas of perfect, sweet-tempered soprano—
With Vladimir Feltsman’s absolute virtuoso
Interpretation on the grand piano?
It’s only five in the morning, and Sunday Baroque
Is in flight! (“The Fugue” begins at nine o’clock.)

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Note: “Sunday Baroque” (and “The Fugue”) are very early morning, marvelous weekly radio programs. “Sunday Baroque” is hosted by Suzanne Bona, and this poem was posted on its Facebook page in June of 2019.

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Cynthia Erlandson is a poet and fitness professional living in Michigan.  Her second collection of poems, Notes on Time, has recently been published by AuthorHouse, as was her first (2005) collection, These Holy Mysteries.  Her poems have also appeared in First Things, Modern Age, The North American Anglican, The Orchards Poetry Review, The Book of Common Praise hymnal, and elsewhere.


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24 Responses

  1. Julian D. Woodruff

    Thank you, Cynthia. Byrd is a treasure whose music should be as familiar to us as Bach’s–not only his Catholic Churh music, but his music for Anglican use and his marvelous instrumental music, too.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you, Julian. I certainly agree about the great value of Byrd’s music. If everyone listened to it, the world would be a much better place. I learned of it in the Anglican Church, particularly from one extremely talented choir.

      Reply
  2. Brian Yapko

    I love both of these poems, Cynthia — your early morning Bach poem is a charmer (your call for “sleepers to awake” is a nice little Easter egg.) But I especially admire “Byrd in Flight” which, if I’m not mistaken, is in a form very similar to a ballade, with its taut repetition of rhymes but with some variations in the traditional form which appropriately offer your personal voice something of a poetic solo. I especially like the phrasing of “earth and heaven are briefly blurred.” I’m a particular fan of church music and classical music and so these two works definitely hit the spot.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      I’m very happy that you liked them, Brian — thank you! I, also, am a fan of this kind of church music, though I’d not heard it until I was an adult; my childhood church’s music was the kind Sally refers to, the genre to which “The Old Rugged Cross” belongs. I was never enamored of that genre, but immediately fell in love with Bach, Byrd, Tallis et. al.

      Reply
  3. Margaret Coats

    Cynthia, there’s so much to appreciate about “Byrd in Flight.” You have very carefully worked in a lovely array of bird imagery and musical score imagery, never forgetting the singers or the central focus of it all, which is heaven. Brian is right to notice the line “earth and heaven are briefly blurred/In sacrament.” This defines the moment for which the music is intended, and indeed the sacrament-like effect of the music, accompanying the divinizing effect of the Sacrament. My favorite expression in the poem is the word “lift,” which at first seems it should be “lifted,” as what happens to the soul already “stirred.” But no–this is not passive usage, but the less common active intransitive verb, meaning that the souls rise. They are not lifted by Byrd, but lift away from earth with him. Or shall we say both “by” and “with”? This special touch in the final line constitutes a great tribute to the composer.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      I’m very grateful for your comments, Margaret, and that you understand so well the tribute the poem attempts to make to one of my very favorite composers. I was actually inspired to send these, after having read your fairly recent wonderful poem about Palestrina. Yes, I do believe that excellent music, especially in church, can connect earth and heaven, as do the sacraments; I have surely felt “lifted” out of this world while hearing it. I can only imagine that Byrd must have been very close to heaven as he was composing it. Though I’m not a musician, I have a deep appreciation for it. (My collection “Notes on Time” is meant to be my tribute to music.)

      Reply
  4. Sally Cook

    Dear Cynthia,

    I love these poems ! When I worked as a church organist, I always used the prelude as a place to insert some Early Baroque. All denominations were slipped a spoonful of it as a palliative and as an inoculation against crassness and stupidity. Always saved back a good gulp for myself, lest I become trite and boring. All denominations seemed to respond to the baroque excepy my own father, who asked me for The Old Rugged Cross. I responded with a blast of Bach…
    Just as words mean things, so do notes, and I can see that you know this very well.
    WHO Chose the very apppropriate illustration of the Angel Birds?

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you so much for your comments, Sally. I just love the things you’ve said here! I smiled at your description of giving all the churches where you played an “inoculation” of good church music — and laughed out loud at the idea of responding to a request for “The Old Rugged Cross” with a blast of Bach! As I mentioned above to Brian, I grew up with that genre (our hymnal was called “The Singspiration Hymnal”) and always wondered what was wrong with me for not liking “church music”. As soon as I heard the good stuff, I absolutely fell in love with it. Yes, notes certainly do mean things! And I truly love the “King of Instruments” and admire organists! I don’t know who chose the illustration, but I agree that it is perfect.

      Reply
  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Cynthia, these poems are breathtakingly beautiful. I particularly appreciate the deft word play in ‘Byrd in Flight’… it’s both graceful and joyful and captures the splendor of superlative notes perfectly. Your ‘Summer Sunday Baroque’ makes me want to tune into the radio program and get carried away by its wonder. I am no musician, but I know the marvel of a melodious poem when I hear one – “exquisite melismas” is a mellifluous pairing that makes my ears and heart sing. Cynthia, your poems beg to be read aloud. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you, Susan; I’m honored by your praise. I’m so happy that you give my poem the same kind of description — graceful and joyful — that I sense in Byrd’s unearthly music; I’m grateful if I can even come close to its beauty. I hope you do find a place to listen to Sunday Baroque. I love Baroque music so much that I don’t mind getting up very early for it (it starts at 6 a.m. here.)

      Reply
      • Sally Cook

        Oh, Cynthia, there was a similar program that came on at 5:00 AM on weekdays, and I always listened to it before getting up anhd going to the city to my unlikely job. It always took the sting out of that place. I must look up Sunday Baroque on computer. and get back into jmore of a Baroque frame of inind. Thank you so much for helping me do that!

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      You’re so welcome, Jeff. Music is a magical language, perhaps more profound than words, and I try to do it justice.

      Reply
  6. Shaun C. Duncan

    These beautiful poems on the power of music to unite heaven and earth are themselves filled with musicality and delightful imagery. “Byrd In Flight” is particularly stunning, right from the opening lines.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you very much, Shaun; I’m so pleased that you found them to be musical, since that is always one of my top goals when I write.

      Reply
  7. Jack “Michael” Dashiell

    Escape from Rock and Roll, and other self-indulgent songs.

    Reply
  8. Roy E. Peterson

    Cynthia, “the feathered notes” fits beautifully with William Byrd along with “floating ceiling-ward.” I appreciate almost all forms of music, except hip-hop and heavy metal. Although I love Southern Gospel quartets so much more, I have sung in such classical choirs and felt the hairs stand on the back of my neck from the close harmony. Thank you for bringing back some memories.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      You’re welcome, Roy. Thank you for your encouraging comments.

      Reply
    • Sally Cook

      Roy, just a brief comment on Southern Gospel harmony, and how it qeuivers and sparks with the same energy that made the hairs on your neck stand up. This is something that comes from some other place; perhaps one which is full of peace and perfection. I too have felt it…

      Reply
  9. Morrison Handley-Schachler

    Very beautiful poetry, Cynthia. It is difficult to convey feelings about music well in words but you have succeeded wonderfully in both these poems. I love that expression, “Where heaven and earth are briefly blurred,” which sounds as though it refers to the music as well as the sacraments. Byrd is one of my favourite composers. His sacred music is beautiful but he also wrote plenty of settings of secular music, including numerous works for keyboard, which have a charm of their own.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you so much, Morrison. It is so good to find other fans of such great music. I just can’t understand how anyone can hear Byrd’s music and not fall in love with it immediately!

      Reply

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