The fool! Little did he know that I’ve long been harboring a desire to set passages from Beowulf, the ancient epic poem that I have loved ever since taking a class in college studying Anglo-Saxon poetry in its original language. In the twenty-plus years that I have been toting around my various Beowulf translations and Anglo-Saxon grammars, I have noted many a wrinkled nose and tart reactions like, “Uh, are you reading that for fun?”
When I went to work on this piece in September 2020, things felt pretty bleak, even by 2020 standards. On top of Covid, the presidential campaign had gone from awful to awfuller, and the wildfire smoke over the Bay Area was so thick that on the day I started writing, September 9, it literally felt like the sun never came up.
Ironically—or perhaps not—the text I had chosen was this: Leoht eastan com, “Light came from the East.” The passage describes the final stage of a five-day ocean swimming contest between Beowulf and his rival, Breca. Beowulf (and presumably Breca too) has to contend with storms, sea monsters, near-drowning, and, we can only presume, total exhaustion. Yet he perseveres, and ultimately, in the light of dawn, the sea delivers him to land and safety.
To me this passage spoke beautifully of hope in a time of great difficulty. I hoped it would speak to the kids at Sunset and Aloha in the same way.
From a musical standpoint, this was my second piece written for a virtual choir—the first being Zoom, premiered last year by International Orange Chorale. Though very different stylistically, the pieces have a lot in common technically to accommodate the virtual format. Tempos don’t vary much, each part is designed to be comfortable to sing while sitting alone at the kitchen table, and as always, I tried to write with the proper degree of difficulty for each choir.
Though I obviously was never able to meet these kids in person, it made me so happy to see and hear them singing “together” for this moment. I hope you enjoy their performance as much as I did. Big props to Chris Rust for making this happen—it is not easy to pull off technically!
Watch "Leoht Easton Com" on YouTube
(Text and translation are in the notes)
I hope you are healthy and thriving, wherever you are! In that spirit, here is a shot of me and my buddy Dr. Fauci, shortly after getting my second vaccine this morning at Kaiser Oakland.