Forming Desires

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The text of “Forming Desires” comes from “The Secrets of the Self”, a book of philosophical poems by Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938). Iqbal was a politically influential writer of the Islamic world (primarily in what is now Pakistan). The poetry was composed in a traditional Persian style, in homage to Rumi, and translated into English by scholar Reynold A. Nicholson.

My piece features selections from the second chapter, “The Life of the Self Comes From Forming Desires”. Here Iqbal depicts “desire” as the all-important spiritual impulse that propels and justifies human ambition, particularly the quest for knowledge, and the individual's journey towards self-realization. This poetry is a celebration of the mysterious sustaining force of creativity (in a broad sense of the term), and a plea for each of us to live to our full capacity.

Sensitivity to the text was my first concern when beginning this piece; not only for the text itself, but in order to develop the music coherently and with purpose. I strove for textual and emotional clarity in the vocal line, and treated the instrumental ensemble as an extension of the voice (and vice versa) rather than an accompaniment. The choice of a low female voice (mezzo or contralto) came naturally, as this voice is traditionally associated with maturity, wisdom, and a sense of monumentality or emotional weight. I selected the mixed instrumentation of clarinet, horn and cello in order to maximize both variety and timbral blend.

The instruments act individually to produce staggered harmonic layers, hocketting figures, or brief soloistic statements that echo and comment on each other. I tried to create a fluid, organic atmosphere that is expansive yet intimate. The structure is dictated by the momentum of ideas that grow out of each other, ever reaching forward, now upwards, now downwards, never fully resolving – an expression of “desire”.

Note: I have broken the stanzas to reflect my musical setting, not the original text (which is without breaks).


Why does the mind strive after new discoveries and scale the heavens?

Knowest thou what works this miracle?

’Tis desire that enriches Life,

And the intellect is a child of its womb.

What are social organisation, customs, and laws?

What is the secret of the novelties of science?

A desire which broke through by its own strength

And burst forth from the heart and took shape.

Nose, hand, brain, eye, and ear,

Thought, imagination, feeling, memory, and understanding
All these are weapons devised for self-preservation

By him that rides into the battle of Life.

The object of science and art is not knowledge,

The object of the garden is not the bud and the flower.

Science is an instrument for the preservation of Life,
Science is a means of establishing the Self.

Science and art are servants of Life,

Slaves born and bred in its house.

Rise, O thou who art strange to Life's mystery,

Rise intoxicated with the wine of an ideal!
If thou art an ideal, thou wilt shine as the dawn
And be to all else as a blazing fire.

If thou art an ideal, thou art higher than Heaven

Winning, captivating, enchanting men's hearts;

A destroyer of ancient falsehood,

Fraught with turmoil, an embodiment of the Last Day.

We live by forming ideals,

We glow with the sunbeams of desire!


Desire is an emotion of the Self:

It is a restless wave of the Self's sea.
Desire is a noose for hunting ideals,

A binder of the book of deeds.

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© 2013 Nell Shaw Cohen. All rights reserved.
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