Album review: ‘Beauty Come Dancing’

Gordon Getty's ode to love and dance
September 17, 2018 Updated: September 20, 2018

Gordon Getty (b. 1933) is a distinguished composer of songs and operas inspired by poetry. “Beauty Come Dancing” is a new release on the Pentatone label of Getty’s choral works performed by The Netherlands Radio Choir led by chorus master Klaas Stok, and The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Gaffigan. This is the third album of his choral works.

Getty is a self-described conservative, both in the poetry that inspires him and the music he writes.

The only living poet in the collection and the one who wrote the title piece and two other songs on the CD is himself. This is not the first time he has set his own words to music. Like Wagner, whom Getty admires, he supplies his own librettos for his operas: “Plump Jack” (based on Shakespeare’s Falstaff), “Usher House” (based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher”), and “The Canterville Ghost” (based on Oscar Wilde’s novella).

The opening piece, and the longest and most complex work in the collection, is “The Old Man in the Night.” The lyrics deal with two men, one young and other elderly, both supposedly representing the author at different times in his life. Much of the poem is an evocation of beauty, ending with: “Beauty beyond all keeping, worth all cost/O beautiful and merciless my love.”

“The Old Man in the Morning” shows a more hopeful new day, where it is “all spring, all morning, just as then.”

John Keats (1795–1821) is Getty’s favorite poet, and John Masefield (1878–1967) his second favorite. Both are represented in his collection.

Masefield, like Getty, was a ballet aficionado and, in “Ballet Russe,” Beauty returns in the form of a ballerina, “all that a boyhood loves and manhood needs.” The first line of the poem mentions Chopin, and the music suggests the style of the earlier composer.

The title piece on the CD, with words by Getty, has all nature dancing, “when the world is young” and “loud with music [and] mirth.”

“Shenandoah” is Getty’s choral arrangement of the American folk song. He had written an earlier arrangement for soprano Lisa Delan, who has been a frequent interpreter of his music.

“There Was a Naughty Boy” is a lighthearted poem by Keats, and Getty’s setting is equally playful.

Sara Teasdale’s (1884–1933) “Those Who Love the Most” (the only poem on the album by a female writer) is a look backward to the era of courtly love, with references to Guinevere, Deirdre, Iseult, and Heloise.

Edward Arlington Robinson’s “For a Dead Lady” is a melancholy waltz, wondering at the end, “Of what inexorable cause/Makes Time so vicious in his reaping.”

“The Destruction of Sennacherib” by Lord Byron (1788–1824) is a dramatic piece, beginning with an attack by the Assyrian army and concluding with the grieving widows of Ashur.

Ernest Christopher Dowson’s (1867–1900) “Cynara” is performed by a male chorus and orchestra. At one point the poet exclaims, “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! In my fashion.”  This poem was supposedly the inspiration for Cole Porter’s song “Always True to You in My Fashion” from the musical “Kiss Me, Kate.” Getty’s musical setting is far more serious in tone than the Broadway composer’s.

Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” again recalls knightly love and ends with the poet alone “where no birds sing.”

The Netherlands Radio Choir under Chorus Master Klaas Stok clearly articulates the text, although where the orchestra reaches an occasional crescendo, the words are sometimes obscured. Pentatone helpfully supplies the poems along with an essay by Jeff Kaliss, a statement from the composer, and information about the choir, the superb Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as its conductor James Gaffigan.

“Beauty Come Dancing” attests to Getty’s facility for setting poetry to music.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.