Something old, something new

An Israeli composer arranging music for classic English-language poetry may seem like an unlikely combination, but for Gilad Hesseg, it’s a perfect fit – and maybe even a dream come true.

Gilad Hesseg 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Jackie Frankel)
Gilad Hesseg 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Jackie Frankel)
Israeli composer Gilad Hesseg is preparing to release an album, Hidden Flame, of modern arrangements for classics by poets such as Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Lord Alfred Tennyson and Rudyard Kipling. This is the first time that many of the poems have been set to music. Hesseg got his start arranging music for Hebrew poetry.
“My first album was poems of Rachel – I found that I love poetry and it absolutely brings out the best of me as a musician and as a composer,” he said.
Hesseg has family roots in England and Ireland and grew up speaking English, and listening to artists like Sting, Stevie Wonder and Elton John. However, it took Edgar Allen Poe’s Annabel Lee for him to first be attracted to English-language poetry.
“One night we were at the dinner table, and my wife’s mother and uncle started reciting the poem Annabel Lee,” he recalled.
“I didn’t know the poem, and they just recited it. I was shocked – right away I was caught by the poem. The words just wowed me. I said, ‘I have to have it.’” Hesseg’s mother-in-law retrieved an old, brown booklet from which she studied English poetry as a teenager.
“I took it home and I didn’t have the courage to compose [music for Annabel Lee] at that point. It had just an effect on me – I said I wouldn’t compose it until the right time.”
The right time came a year later, when Maestro Stanley Sperber, director of choral music at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, approached him at one of his concerts of Rachel’s poetry and asked him to compose a song for his choir.
“I said ‘You got it, I know what I’m going to do.’ I went home and that night, after ten minutes, Annabel Lee was composed,” said Hesseg. “That was almost four years ago.”
Hesseg’s success with Annabel Lee convinced him to continue composing arrangements for classic poetry. His next challenge was finding material.
“The brown booklet [from my mother-in-law]? I went through it countless times. I’m talking about classic poetry – Tennyson, Edgar Allen Poe, poetry from the bible,” explained Hesseg.
“After I went through that booklet at least a 100 times , I understood that I needed an English poetry book. I have now at least 10 very thick classic English poetry books. I even ordered translations of Japanese poetry.”
He says that he has uncovered some hidden gems in his exploration.
“Some [of the poems I have found] have been forgotten, for some reason, and my ambition is to bring them to life,” he said. One of the poems that caught his eye was Ernest Hemingway’s Advice to a Son.
“Few even know that Hemingway wrote poetry but after reading 2000 poems, you find some things that have been lost along the way.”
HESSEG IS passionate about classic poetry, but his exploration of the medium is not without challenges.
He looks for poems that appeal to him on a personal level, and whose meaning and cadence are suitable for modern music.
“English is not my mother tongue, so sometimes it takes me a few reads to understand a poem. The thing that speaks to me the most is when I can relate personally – to the story and to the meaning. It has to appeal to me on a personal level, and the language has to be very clear and very relevant.”
His experience with the poetry of Christina Rossetti shows the difficulty of dealing with classic poetry in a second language.
“[I was reading the poem and] something in the language bothered me – I said I couldn’t compose it, it’s too difficult – but when I came back to it, I found out that I read a word incorrectly and all of a sudden the song just came out,” he said.
“I am dying to do something by Shakespeare but it’s really difficult because of the ‘thy’ and ‘thou’– it’s difficult to take that into contemporary music,” added Hesseg.
“It can be hard to find contemporary shape for a song – verse, chorus, verse, chorus – in classic poems.”
Once Hesseg has found the right poem, he says that the composition comes very quickly, sometimes in a matter of minutes. His songs have received international attention, and his ambitions stretch far beyond Israel’s borders.
“I have been a musician as far back as I remember... but this time, I feel different. I believe that this time might be my dream come true,” he said.
“The album is an international effort. My manager is located in New York and some of the singers are from New Jersey. We recorded in New York, and are supposed to mix the album in the UK. I can actually see my dream coming to life, of becoming an international songwriter.
I am already aiming outside – I can understand that in Israel it will be difficult [to find a large audience], because far fewer people have been in touch with the material.”
One of Hesseg’s main target audiences is university students throughout North America and the United Kingdom.
“High schools and colleges are learning [this poetry] all over the world – and when you combine it with music, if it’s good music, then it’s easier and more relevant,” he said. “[The students] get other aspects and other levels.”
Via YouTube, Hesseg has been able to see reactions from listeners around the world, which has left him with a distinct impression of the impact that his work can have.
“Good poetry and good music cross all boundaries,” he said.
"Here are first releases of the rough mixes of Gilad Hesseg's album.Take a listen!
Annabel Lee:
The Beggar Maid: Flame:"