top of page

Echoes of earlier times

Have you ever encountered an amazing echo? Perhaps you’ve once been in a huge church or cathedral where you dared to clap your hands loudly or call “whoo” to hear the sound come back after a brief delay. Or have you been in a valley where nature produced such an effect? In one of my very favorite books from childhood, Susan Cooper’s fantasy Silver on the Tree, a naturally occurring echo in the Welsh countryside becomes the fulfillment of a prophecy when the main character, Will, sings for the echo and creates the effect that “the mountains are singing.” Since reading that book as a child, I’ve always loved the idea that an echo could be a living force with which we could communicate.

Seventeenth-century poets and composers loved this concept, and you’ll find many examples of “echo poems” in Italian, English and other languages in this time period, where the echo, by imitating back the last few syllables of the previous line, appears to provide an answer or comment on the poet’s words. Here’s one example by Lord Herbert of Cherbury, written in 1665:

Echo in a Church

When shall my troubled soul at large


The burden of her sins, oh where?

Echo — Here.

Whence comes this voice I hear?

Who doth this grace afford?

If it be thou, O Lord,

Say if thou hear my prayers, when I call.

Echo — All.

And wilt thou pity grant when I do cry?

Echo — I.

Then though I fall,

Thy Grace will my defects supply,

But who will keep my soul from ill,

Quench bad desires, reform my Will?

Echo — I will.

O may that will and voice be blest,

Which yields such comforts unto one distrest,

More blessed yet, would'st thou thy self unmask,

Or tell, at least, who undertakes this task.

Echo — Ask.

Then quickly speak,

Since now with crying I am grown so weak,

I shall want force even to crave thy name,

O speak before I wholly weary am.

Echo — I am.

You’ll notice that some of the echo’s lines don’t really seem to rhyme with the previous word—but remember that the pronunciation of English vowels was quite different in the seventeenth century (a subject for another blog post!) Still, the echo is an ingenious poetic device to express the voice of God, and often to underline the loneliness or suffering of the poet.

Our January concert includes the echo song Hor che la notte ombrosa, by Bellerofonte Castaldi. Italian seems a particularly rich language for playing these kinds of echo games, starting with the word “echo” itself: it’s conveniently a homonym for “ecco,” meaning “here I am!” Here’s our rough working translation of the poem…

Hor che la notte ombrosa Now that shadowy night

Con tacito silentio il mondo cuopre Covers the world with silence

Tu sola mi rispondi Only you respond to me

Echo (echo) Echo (here I am!)

amorosa (osa) Loving echo (dare!)

Ma che? But what?

Se quell' empia e crudele If that disloyal and cruel one

Si sdegna d'ascoltar le mie querele Refuses to listen to my complaints

Dunque chi dara fine a tanti guai? (ai) Then who will end my woe? (alas!)

Tu con lamento mi rispondi You respond to me with laments

E par che vi nascondi And because you hide yourself

Che da lei pace non havrò già mai (mai) I will never have peace from her (never!)

Se tanto asprezza in lei s'aduna If such bitterness is in her

Altra dia fine a si crudel fortuna (una) Another may make an end to such cruel fate (one!)

Purtroppo io sò But I know

Che altri che quella That no other but she

Non pare a gli occhi miei Appears to my eyes

Donna più bella (ella) A more beautiful woman (she!)

Onde il pensier mi parla e dice So my thoughts speak to me and say

Forsi col tempo diverrai felice (lice) Perhaps with time I will become happy (it may be!)

Ben lieta sorte hà l'amor mio A happy fate has my love

Se giunge al fin del suo dolce desio If she reaches her sweet desire.

Tu del mio ben presaga a Dio (addio) You from my love foretell a goodbye (goodbye!)

As you’ll hear in the concert, each echoed word is literally echoed in the music, which also gives the singer a chance to show off some virtuosic runs. The final “goodbye,” repeated several times, leaves the listeners with a sweetly melancholy feeling.

Of course, pieces built around echos present all kinds of interesting performance challenges. The echo could be sung by a second singer, played on an instrument, or could come from a different part of the room (a balcony, or backstage perhaps.) We’ve experimented with some of these techniques in previous concerts, but this time around decided that it was important to hear the text of the echo, rather than having it played on cornetto. So this time it will be all down to me, as the only singer on the program, to play both roles.

We hope you’ll join us on January 19 in Cambridge, or January 21 in Brattleboro, to hear this great piece and many others from the period! More info about the concerts can be found here.

You can also tell us on facebook if you're coming to the Cambridge concert or the Brattleboro concert.

And just for fun, here’s a modern-day Harry Potter-themed echo poem by Phil Buckley. Don’t worry, we won’t sing this one!

bottom of page