The Windhover


SATB chorus(divisi)



The Princeton Singers
Steven Sametz, director

The Princeton Singers, 2008
dedicated to Ann and John McGoldrick

The Princeton Singers
Steven Sametz, director

ECS No. 7384

Program Notes

I encountered “The Windhover” in graduate school, and it made such a strong impression, but was so daunting a work, that I waited nearly three decades to set it.   Hopkins combines a poetic vocabulary drawn from his study of Welsh with a sense of the sacred inherent in his calling to the priesthood.   The language Hopkins used to depict the central image of the poem, that of a falcon hovering on the air, is already so musical that it took some time for me to come to a harmonic vocabulary that I thought might express the essential ecstatic nature of the poem.

Hopkins wrote of an “inscape” in his poetry, an inner landscape revealed behind the words themselves. The poems were intended to touch the unique interior life that words can only describe. For me, this is the realm where music is  strongest.  As the poet and storyteller Hans Christian Anderson wrote, “where words fail, music begins.”  As composers of words and music, we are called upon not merely to set words, but to enhance the inner landscape of the poetry.  If we fail to reveal the “inscape” of the poem, we have likely not done justice to the poet and his work.

The world of the The Windhover  opens at dawn as the poet views the falcon spiraling in the air, “morning’s minion,” riding on the “rolling level underneath him steady air… in his ecstasy!”  The poet is “stirred for a bird, –the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!”   In its flight, the falcon is so essentially itself, so free on the air that it expresses its Christ-like nature.  Hopkins’ dedication of the “The Windhover” is “To Christ Our Lord.”  

In the culmination of the poem, the falcon’s beauty, valor, and the ecstasy of flight are “buckled” together as a holy fire breaks forth, sending forth a spray of embers, which “gash gold-vermillion.”

In the musical setting, The Windhover  takes flight after the declamation of the poem and enters into the realm of the bird’s ecstatic flight.  Words fall away and the music rushes toward its close with the free cry of the falcon, soaring on the wind.





The Windhover

I caught this morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin,
dapple-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! Then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend; the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart is hiding
Stirred for a bird–the achieve of , the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valor and act, oh air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! And the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it; sheer plod makes plow down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion

–Gerald Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)