Ye Are Many—They Are Few, Cantata for a Just World, an art song with text and music by Norman Mathews, was performed 12 May 2014 at the Cultural Center (the former main public library) in Chicago with the VOX3 Collective Company. Soprano Carla Janzen, Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Wills, tenor Nicholas Pulikowski, and baritone Brian von Reuden delivered the operatic and dramatic expression of the text. This premier of Mathews’ work came at the end of a program entitled Fellow Citizens: Songs of Social Engagement, which began with “Morning Commute,” a witty vocal dramatization of riding the Metra lines, each identified by a color–Purple, Green, Blue, Pink, etc. –networking Chicagoland. The commuting songs were interspersed with “Blackwater,” a heavily political work written by Jill McDonough, with music by Randall West, that attacks the private security services company founded by Erik Prince in North Carolina, some of whose employees were linked to the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007; and “Chicago Songs,” which selects poetry and prose of Carl Sandburg that recognizes the injustices of “the haves and the have nots,” as the program notes put it, and resonates with today’s social inequalities. One Sandburg poem, “Anna Imroth,” looks at the rescue of a working girl from a fire in a factory that had no fire escape.
Ye Are Many—They are Few glosses the music and text that comes before it to some extent but it is a work that stands alone. As a contata it has its formal roots in the baroque period and though the music itself is stylistically contemporary music, the development follows the cantata convention of using a number of movements, in this case, arias, that express a theme. Mathews’ cantata turns on the problem of standing up to injustice. The tone is solemn. A powerful amount of text comes from Shelley’s “The Masque of Anarchy.” Mathews is the other principal writer here, though he in turn invokes others whose convictions support his argument. In his capacity as composer and author he gives arias to: William Butler Yeats (“the best lack all conviction” lines), Dorothy Parker (“Which is worse—the perpetrators of injustice or those who are blind to it?”), Frederick Douglass (“Power concedes nothing without a demand.”), Howard Zinn (“Our problem is that people are obedient.”), George Bernard Shaw (“Liberty means responsibility. That’s why most men dread it.”), and William Jennings Bryan “We petition no more. / We defy them”).
Mathews opens his cantata with a proclamation:
In a world of unspeakable injustice,
Good people turn a blind eye.
Mired in material pursuits,
Transfixed by trivial diversions,
They are oblivious.
No questions are asked.
No answers demanded.
No resistance exerted.
The poem/song demands action from artists and musicians:
Where are the poets who will raise the cry?
Where are the artists?
Who will compose the music to rouse us from our torpor?
It argues for making demands from the forces in power, and taking the course of civil disobedience. Mathews enlists Shelley to articulate the call to action:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you–
Ye are many—they are few.
Mathews focuses the case for not remaining silent in a world of injustice by posing the question, “What is our responsibility?/ Merely to denounce those who oppress us?” He then quotes 32 lines of Shelley’s “Masque of Anarchy” that deal with freedom, its opposite, slavery, and the force of tyranny that threatens freedom. Shelley here illustrates what slavery is by citing the effects of low wages “ . . . to work and have such pay/ As just keeps life from day to day” and the consequent mal nourishment, leading to weakness, in children.
Mathews follows Shelley’s exposé of tyranny by outlining a non-violent reaction—“not with pistol or bomb” but “We will prevail/ because truth and integrity are our weapons.” The cantata ends with Shelley’s famous passage of 25 lines on passive resistance, beginning with,
Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.
And ending with a return to the lines, “Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you–/ Ye are many—they are few.”
In a private conversation Mathews stated that it is by intention that he does not link his song, or the lines from Shelley, to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester which inspired Shelley to write his “Masque of Anarchy.” The much larger concepts of Shelley’s poem were thus allowed to extend to the entire body of musical works performed that day in Preston Bradley Hall, home to the Dame Myra Hess weekly concerts, and to an audience that could easily find, if they wished, a parallel in the Haymarket Massacre of 4 May 1886 in Chicago which led ultimately to International May Day.
Composer Norman Mathews is known for, among other things, his song cycle of Walt Whitman poems, Songs of the Poet , recorded on Capstone records and performed world wide. He is a graduate of Hunter College (BA) and New York University (MA, music).
Note: I have quoted texts from the copy handed out at the performance, which does not have numbered lines. This is true even for Shelley, confident as I am that the readers at this site know which edition of the “Masque of Anarchy” they prefer.
Carol Kyros Walker