When Time was Young

for Soprano, flute, clarinet, violin and cello

Text by Edward Weismiller

soprano/clarinet movement premiered May 2003

Lucy Shelton, soprano
Mica Bregman, clarinet

complete piece premiered January 28, 2005

Lucy Shelton, soprano
Sarah Green, flute
Lucie McGee, clarinet
Charles Hummel, violin
Sarah Lambert, cello

Movement II:

  “An additional, unannounced treat was the premiere, by Shelton and Cigan, of a piece titled "When Time Was Young," with music by Thomas Flaherty and words by longtime 20th Century Consort supporter Edward Weismiller -- a limpid, lyrical and effortlessly touching duet for soprano and clarinet.” [Lucy Shelton, 20th Century Consort]
– Tim Page, Washington Post
  “California composer Flaherty wrote When Time Was Young for Shelton when she received an honorary degree from Pomona College. He cast the six poems by Edward Weismiller for her flexible, compelling voice as it resounds with violin (Hirono Oka), cello (Ohad Bar-David), clarinet (Arne Running), and flute (Edward Schulz). The title song, with clarinet alone, explored dissonances, let the clarinet seem to finish the soprano's sentences, sometimes, in poetry that exulted: "Let us sing our lives away."” [Lucy Shelton, Network for New Music]“
–  Daniel Webster The Philadelphia Inquirer



The first poem in this set was written by Edward Weismiller in 1950, the year I was born. As a young man of 35, he looked forward in these poems to many seasons of life, and sometimes contemplated what it would be like to look back at them. He might not have guessed that some 15 years later he would make the acquaintance of a young Pomona College student named Lucy Shelton, who would go on to an internationally acclaimed career as a singer. Or that he would remain in touch with her for 40 years. Or that she would provide the inspiration to return to Pomona in his ninetieth year. Or that she would perform these poems in a musical setting with current students in 2005. Or that his five grown children would be joining him in Claremont for the occasion.

Professor Weismiller taught at Pomona College from 1950 to 1967. He spent the rest of his teaching career at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and retired some time ago. Since then he has been concentrating primarily on a study of Milton’s works, but has at the same time continued to write poetry and prose.

My own acquaintance with his poetry is quite recent. In 2003, Lucy Shelton received an honorary doctorate from Pomona College. Rather than give the traditional “thank you” speech she elected to do what she has done ever since graduating from Pomona in 1969: she decided to sing her gratitude. As she has made a specialty of singing new music, she asked the current faculty composer to write a piece to be sung with a graduating senior. Pomona clarinetist Micah Bregman was lucky enough to be the graduating senior. I was lucky enough to be the current faculty composer.

Among several poems that Lucy sent me to consider setting was the text of the second movement of the set. Its final line, “Let  us sing our lives away” seemed strikingly appropriate and uplifting advice to a graduating class in a commencement ceremony, especially coming from someone who was following that very advice.

The poem came from a set of six poems found in The Branch of Fire, and the other five called out for settings of their own. Their images are vivid and richly evocative, and have given me great pleasure. The setting is dedicated to Lucy Shelton and the Pomona College Contemporary Music Ensemble: Sarah Green, flute; Lucie McGee, clarinet; Charles Hummel, violin; and Sarah Lambert, cello, premiered the piece in January 2005.


Be sure that the winter will come to the arbor,
Expect that the leaves of the flowers will go
(Less shining than summer's; leaving their ardor)
Under, and over, and under the snow.
Death is the strict completion of order:
What we were taught, we know.

Summer's obscure, but winter is open;
Summer's profuse, but winter is slow
And clear and exact as a wave of the ocean:
Up to that wave we go.

Why do you rise, with your face turned ashen?
What do you still not know?

When Time was young
Time's wing was downed with snow,
And snow hung
Like a soft lock adrift down the white brow,
The cold, untroubled brow-
So let us sing our lives away.

When Time was young,
Oh, then I did not dance,
Wanting some breath of music from his tongue;
Sunk in his glance:
His measured, his unsearching glance-
Still let us sing our lives away.

When Time was young
Time's step was light, and slow.
My step halts now.
But now his flight howls a tune down the eaves:
Like sparrows in the leaves
Let us dance, and sing, our lives away.

Hell's somewhere; a gray honeycomb, that each
May know by his own cell, exact, and furnished
(Sparsely) with the cinders of all he loves.
It is light there, or dark. From some center
A pulse curiously like that of a heart comes
Unhurried, unhurried- it will be counted,
And that continues history, that is experience,
The counting: forever, with the sound of never.

But heaven, what is heaven? And where,
End of what black trail frayed away by wind,
Beyond what crest of space, dazzling at last
The eyes, the heart-.

Nothing. Nowhere.
Or if somewhere then all's an instant there,
Forever's instant. And who could tell,
Who from so far could hear or listen for
That tick, when Time that has him by the hand
Will lead him strongly down a passageway
He knows, into a space he knows, furnished
Sparsely-and say,
This is yours. I have brought everything
You wanted. If you call. I shall be here.

This day of sun and sound- this Sunday: will
The syllables of bells, the color, blue,
Be clear as this, recalled when, still less still
Than now, the dusk falls, and all failures blow?
This day dulls as I look: I look to lose
More, as more days darken and build me man:
And build of flesh the ages of the rose;
And build of bone the stages of the moon.

Thinking that all the world is less and less
Lessens what I would be. What I would be
Is strong- but strong is young, I would be, yes,
I craze with time, that glass I shiver by!
This day, this blaze of sound- bell-bright: so tall:
Look up! But in that glass my eyelids fall.

All night the crickets plucked the familiar string, the strangeness
Of moonlight sealed the stretched fields under spell,
and even strangers (pausing, puzzled, above some flower
that should have fallen when they were young)
muttered, I cannot with this older tongue
tell you, nor at this hour,
but such a face the world wore, I remember.
or I do not remember well. -

All night the treetoads sang. The summer wood
rose from its pond of shadow. The urging wind, the dragging
rubbed leaves to shivering fire; and fire forsook
the shaken leaves Ash-gold. ash-gray, soot-
black, the world moved between warm and cool.

And even friends, ending their bridge or conversation
indoors, waited in doorways, watching the night unfold
in rigid golden light, and sighed, bewildered,
When we were children-
oh, but the world was always a wilderness
surely, though seeming simple?
How surely we grow old;
how swiftly.
But such the world was.

All night the world said, It is the same.
And friends, or strangers, said, We have climbed some stair,
have closed some door, (in triumph) have known some to die!
And the world said, You are what you were,
I will show you what you were. And all said,
friends, and strangers, No- no, it is changed
but if the same we cannot now remember,
would not remember well, would not recall
what the world was, or what we were, at all.

All night the wind plucked the familiar string;
and the water sang, the water

Over and over,
Flesh over bone,
Wing upon wind
On water on stone-

What made the music?
Whose was the word?
Was it the stone you heard?
Water you heard?


score excerpt



other works for solo voice