Black Dog Songs

Black Dog Songs 2017-03-07T00:04:31+00:00

Project Description

Male Voice and Piano
15 min.

Buy Sheet Music

Listen Now

Steven Kalm; recital 5 December, 2000
live recording

Preview Score


June 1996, Missoula, Montana


  1. When my father’s sperm…
  2. I am smeared…
  3. My friend had a stroke…
  4. When I really want to whine…
  5. Fierce, blinding night!…
  6. On the subway platform…


The poems selected for Black Dog Songs are from the collection “If My Black Dog Returns” by Richard Beale. An understanding of melancholia is very old in Western culture. It has been called “the blues,” or simply “the beast.” Winston Churchill, in a letter, mentioned a doctor famous for curing depression. Churchill wrote that he may have use for him “…if my black dog returns.”

1. “When my father’s sperm entered my mother’s egg
2. “I am smeared with the tar of night”
3. “My friend had a stroke”
4. “When I really want to whine”
5. “Fierce, blinding night!”
6. “On the subway platform”

The poems are grippingly dramatic, and the songs are starkly simple. Emphasis is placed on a clear understanding of the sung word.

Program Note

The “Black Dog Songs” address the issue of depression, and the struggle to stay alive in the face of depression. Moreover they speak to the struggle of the sould seeking God, and feeling the tough of God through depression.

The poems of “Black Dog Songs” are from the collection “If My Black Dog Returns” by Richard Beale. He writes the following note about the title:

Images of melancholia are very old in Western tradition. At various times is has been called “the blues”, “writer’s block”, or simply “the beast”. A modern version comes from Winston Churchill, who in a letter to his wife mentioned a German doctor famous for his ability to cure depression. He wrote that he may have use for him himself “…if my black dog returns.”

The images in Beale’s poems are always stark, and sometimes shocking. They are spare and unadorned, and tell precisely about a fierce inner reality. Most people do not look at or acknowledge this reality, except possible in their most private moments. Depression is viewed as incapacity and weakness. Yet depression and darkness are the well springs of creativity, and finally must be accepted and honored in the life.

The songs were composed in June of 1996. Following the completion of my “Mass” in the previous December, and a six-month period of utter exhaustion, these songs were the next things I wrote. They are so unlike the Latin Mass that I didn’t understand the relationship between the songs and the Mass. A composer friend who knows my work well suggested that the songs might represent a sermon on the Mass – the speaking out with the authority to do so of something utterly necessary to be said and heard, This idea makes sense to me, and I offer these songs to you in that spirit.

Program note by David Maslanka


The poems of Black Dog Songs are from the collection If My Black Dog Returns by Richard Beale. Beale writes the following notes about the title:

Images of melancholia are very old in Western cultural tradition. At various times it has been called “the blues”, “writers block”, or simply “the beast”. A modern version comes from Winston Churchill, who in a letter to his wife mentioned a German doctor famous for his ability to cure depression. He wrote that he may have use for him himself…”if my black dog returns”.

When my father’s sperm entered my mother’s egg
I was encoded with depression. I see my fate in his face
in his late photographs. Knowing this lessons my shame.
I would have to be a monster to feel responsible
for the worthlessness I see in his face.
It was easier to indict Mom and Dad
than to accept responsibility.
Later I had to forgive them, of course
because I couldn’t live with the blame.
And I had to forgive you, too. Look at the sperm
and the egg. They do not know what they are doing
when you bring them together,
and you let them conflate whatever disasters they contain.

I am smeared with the tar of night.
It covers my imperfections
When I cannot love, or feel love
I wait for morning.

My friend had a stroke and lost his voice.
I can accept the fact that he will never say hello again.
It is harder now to share my feelings with him,
but it would help to know if he still loves me.
If I lived in a silence like his I would want arms around me
and voices to say what they love in life,
Like lines of poems that let us feel
their blood and their rhythmical breathing,
then I could em-brace the loss I did not plan.

When I really want to whine
I say death is just fine.
I make up images of Paradise
for people who are good and nice
They deserve it, I say,
for being faithful every day.

Fierce, blinding night! A cup of madness
tastes like wine, and whisks the pain away.
It earns the blame of the righteous,
a wild, searching light!
Panic in the downward dive,
the knife of memory
annealed and blunted by tongues of fire.
The night is bent by dream. The black dog
brings an umbrella. I open it
inside his mouth.

On the subway platform
I wanted to throw myself
on the third rail
and then I saw a light
and got on the train
and the suicide was averted.

The antidepressant is not working
and I am thinking about death again.
In this world I am not what is wanted.
It is a lack of definitions, the right words.
Tics and seizures and migraines feel like hell–
sneezes and orgasms like little apertures of heaven–
Who would I be without images
of hellfire and heavenly crescendos
in my body?

I try to vault the abyss
and fall into it.
Pharmaceuticals never reach
that far into the dark.
Goddam the suicides!, they say.
If you’ve never stood
on the subway platform
contemplating release,
if you’ve never knelt in the dark
praying for communion with nothingness,
you don’t know the mean-ing.

I think of God and his silence,
and how my love for him
has not ended wild dives into the dark.
A carpet of frost and a clear cerulean sky,
and fingers of morning caressing the road.
The smell of leaves
musky and grapes in frozen air.
I want this nowness to endure
with the sun on my back
and release in my heart.

Further Reading

Music in Life

18 April 2002|0 Comments

Remarks given on 18 April 2002 at Indiana University School of Music before a performance of the Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble. Other works on the concert included Montana Music: Chorale Variations and [...]

Further notes on Music Performance

10 April 1999|0 Comments

Two quotes from the scientist and philosopher Rene Dubos in his 1962 book The Torch of Life: “A fully developed human being cannot be thought of as an isolated creature. His or her [...]

Music and Healing

7 April 1999|0 Comments

Remarks given before a performance of Montana Music: Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano. Music is specifically healing. I know that I am alive today, and essentially well, because of it. Healing through music is [...]

Some things that are true: Reflections on being an artist at the end of the 20th century

20 November 1998|0 Comments

Society of Composers Incorporated Region VIII Conference, University of Montana at Missoula. Keynote address by David Maslanka – November 20, 1998 As soon as one speaks about “truth” there will be objections. Since we live [...]

The roots and purpose of music

15 November 1992|0 Comments

Remarks given at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Nov.15.1992, before a performance of Symphony No.3. I want to give a few thoughts on the roots of music and its purpose in human life. Music comes supposedly [...]