Asylum Piece

for mezzo-soprano, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano

premiered May 12, 1983

Jane O'Donnell, mezzo, Almont Ensemble

(Al Rice, cl; David Stenske, vn; Cynthia Fogg, va; Tom Flaherty, vc, Charlotte Zelka, pn)

Whittier College, Whittier, CA

Asylum Piece is a setting of a text by nineteenth-century British poet John Clare, who spent a good deal of his life in an insane asylum.
As a child, he would spend hours writing rhymes on scraps of paper, usually hiding them from his father, a farm laborerwho saw no purpose in his son's daydreaming. Indeed, hardly anyone saw purpose in Clare's life. He was discharged from the militia shortly after joining and could not keep work as the far laborer his family and friends thought he should be. He had one brief critical success in 1820 with his Poems of Rural Life and Scenery, but the attention was short-lived, and his next and last collection was virtually ignored by the press and public alike.

He began drinking, addressing his wife by the name of a casual acquaintance long since dead, and attempting (unsuccessfully) to sell his poems door-to-door, often walking as much as thirty miles in a day. In 1837, Clare was committed to a private asylum. He was later moved to Northampton County Asylum, where he remained until his death in 1864, and where he wrote the poem set here.

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
     They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
     And yet I am, and live with shadows tost.

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
     Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is nether sense of life nor joys,
    But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest -- that I loved the best --
Are Strange -- nay, rather stranger than the rest

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
  A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
     And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
  The grass below -- above the vaulted sky.

                                     -John Clare

score excerpt