This is the second in a monthly series of stories on the works of American composer Stephen Paulus. For last month's inaugural story on Pilgrims' Hymn click here. Stephen wrote a a small number of personal reflections on some of his better known works, one of which being The Road Home, which is included below.
In the Spring of 2001 I received a commission from the Dale Warland Singers to write a short "folk" type choral arrangement. I had discovered a tune in a folk song book called "The Lone Wild Bird." I fell in love with it, made a short recording and asked my good friend and colleague, Michael Dennis Browne to write new words for this tune. The tune is taken from The Southern Harmony Songbook" of 1835. It is pentatonic and that is part of its attraction. Pentatonic scales have been extant for centuries and are prevalent in almost all musical cultures throughout the world. They are universal. Michael crafted three verses and gave it the title "The Road Home." He writes so eloquently about "returning" and "coming home" after being lost or wandering. Again, this is another universal theme and it has resonated well with choirs around the world as this simple little a cappella choral piece has become another "best seller" in our Paulus Publications catalogue and now threatens to catch up with "Pilgrims' Hymn." It is just more evidence that often the most powerful and beautiful message is often a simple one.
In the spring of 2001, Stephen received a commission from Dale Warland to write a new arrangement of an old or traditional melody, and he asked me to write the words. He played the notes for me on the piano, I recorded it, and in the following weeks played the melody over and over while I formed some words to fit its shape. When I went for walks with the dog, which was often, I sang the notes quietly to myself. (I had done something like this a couple of times before, notably with “Pilgrims’ Hymn” from The Three Hermits.)
All I knew about the tune was that it was from the Southern Harmony songbook of 1835 and that it had been performed under various titles, including “The Lone White Bird,” and that Brian Wren had written some words for it. I also knew that I found it haunting, and I welcomed the (huge) challenge to come up with words in some way worthy of it.
I did what I needed to do: spent a lot of time with the melody and tried to see what it might be trying to say. I was between visits to England, where my beloved sister Angela had become ill, and I was certainly thinking, on one level, of “the old country” which I left in 1965 to come to the United States. I could also hear in the first three notes the beginning of “Loch Lomond,” a song I had sung and loved since I was a child.
What I was looking for was a significant simplicity, something memorable and resonant and patterned, but not as complex as poems can often be, need to be; I wanted something immediate. Little by little, the words came. I thought of the speaker as a persona rather than myself, though of course there needed to be a “personal vibration” to it (to use Robert Lowell’s term). I was also trying to suggest the consolation that can come to someone of faith, in times of great stress, as a result of prayer and an abiding belief in divine mercy.
In a short essay called “Words for Music,” I have written of lyrics for music as “boats on sand” when they appear on the page. In writing words for “The Road Home,” I was writing something to be heard as many voices carrying the stirring melody and not as something self-reliant, to stand on its own the way a poem must do. In doing so, I was aware of steering close to the sentimental and, as I said in my essay, I would never present the words as a poem in a poetry reading, though I have spoken them on occasion as an example of the kind of writing I have done for music.
The song has proved popular—not quite as popular as “Pilgrims’ Hymn,” written four years earlier, though perhaps it is catching up, and has been recorded many times, with several groups using it as the title track. This is very gratifying to Stephen and myself, and for me, as a poet, it constitutes what I call “a different kind of belonging” in that it is heard in churches and concert halls and on recordings by hundreds of thousands of people, whereas my books of poems sell in very modest numbers. Poetry is my original love, and I bring to the writing of libretti and lyrics any skills and energies I may have as a poet, but it is a joy to know how this piece affects people and, in some cases, becomes a part of their lives. This is a privilege I do not underestimate and I am profoundly pleased, and honored, by this reality.
Michael Dennis Browne
The Road Home is one of Stephen's most popular works and continues to be performed and loved by choirs and audiences all over the world. Here is The Road Home performed by Conspirare:
The Road Home
Tell me, where is the road
I can call my own,
That I left, that I lost,
So long ago?
All these years I have wandered,
Oh, when will I know
There's a way, there's a road
That will lead me home?
After wind, after rain,
When the dark is done.
As I wake from a dream
In the gold of day,
Through the air there's a calling
From far away,
There's a voice I can hear
That will lead me home.
Rise up, follow me,
Come away, is the call,
With the love in your heart
As the only song;
There is no such beauty
As where you belong:
Rise up, follow me,
I will lead you home.
Here is Stephen's handwritten manuscript for the SSAA version.
In the spring of 2013 I suggested that my Dad to start writing short stories for each of his works so that people who were looking at his music online would know a bit of the backstory behind each work. He liked the idea, but unfortunately only made it through a half dozen before his stroke in July of 2013. In the following months we will be publishing one of these every month. To start we'll begin with his first work story, Pilgrims' Hymn, and also include a note from the librettist, close friend, and long-time collaborator, Michael Dennis Browne.
In April, 1997 I had a one-act opera called The Three Hermits (based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy) premiered at The House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, MN. That organization also commissioned the work which was written for a small cast, an orchestra of 11 players and the church's Motet Choir. Thomas Lancaster was the conductor and the one hour work received four sold-out performances. My friend and colleague, Kathy Romey, conductor of the Minnesota Chorale and also the Head of Choral Activities at the University of Minnesota, saw one of the premiere performances and encouraged me to have the final chorus in the opera published as a separate work. I thanked her for her interest and put off the task. I really like to move on to the next commission and not dwell over any past work. She persisted and eventually I sort of grudgingly adapted and extracted a short choral work from the opera consisting of just the final chorus. I printed up a 1000 copies at a local print shop and decided that this would be the first work to be published by my own company - Paulus Publications, Inc. I did it as a favor to Kathy and never expected it to garner any great results. The first 1000 copies sold out quickly and we eventually started printing up 3000 copies and then 10,000 copies at a time. To date the work has sold over 160,000 copies and is the lead seller in our choral catalogue. It has also been sung at the funeral services of both Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. It pays to listen to your conductor friends!
Stephen called me over one afternoon in January 1997 to hear his setting of the words from Russian Orthodox liturgy, an evening hymn, that conclude the second scene of The Three Hermits, the church opera, based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, which was scheduled for its first performance in April at House of Hope Church in St. Paul. The words begin with: “Now that the day has come to a close / we ask Thee, O God.” (Words from the Orthodox liturgy are woven throughout the work.)
The music was haunting, memorable. We had been needing a hymn to conclude the work, at the end of scene three, and I intended to write it making use of the words from scripture (Matthew 6, verses 7 and 8) that Tolstoy had selected as an epigraph to his re-telling of the old folk-tale: “And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”
I asked Stephen if he would consider using the same melody at the end of scene three, for which I would write new words. He was uncertain, since it is not customary to repeat a theme in this way, but he ended up playing the melody for me while I recorded it, and so for a week or two after that I went on my walks humming the music to myself and gradually coming up with the words for “Pilgrims’ Hymn” (Stephen’s title, by the way). It was an extraordinary privilege, and challenge, to come up with words that matched, in some measure, Stephen’s very beautiful music. The resulting piece has changed both our lives.
After the premier, Kathy Salzman Romey suggested to Stephen that he might make a separate anthem out of “Pilgrims’ Hymn,” and so he did, doubling up the voices and changing the key (from D flat to F major), and the response in terms of sales was so strong that Stephen founded Paulus Publications and began to publish more and more of his own music. It is a deep joy to both of us that this piece has entered the choral repertory, and that it brings peace and comfort to so many.
--Michael Dennis Browne
Pilgrims' Hymn has been performed by thousands of choirs all over the world, but on the morning Stephen Paulus passed away it was being sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Here is that performance:
Pilgrims' Hymn Lyrics (Lyrics by Michael Dennis Browne)
Even before we call on Thy name
To ask Thee, O Lord,
When we seek for the words to glorify Thee,
Thou hearest our prayer;
Unceasing love, O unceasing love,
Surpassing all we know.
Glory to the Father,
and to the Son,
And to the Holy Spirit.
Even with darkness sealing us in,
We breathe Thy name,
And through all the days that follow so fast,
We trust in Thee;
Endless Thy grace, O endless Thy grace,
Beyond all mortal dream.
Both now and forever,
And unto ages and ages,