Matthew Owens is widely known as a writer as well as composer, performer, and artist. In addition to his having written The Pope of Fools and The Garden, he is often invited to write essays, poetry, or speeches for various occasions. The following are some excerpts from his various works.

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A chamber-opera based on Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame. A setting of nine original poems by Matthew Owens, in which Quasimodo tells his own story, of one, unlovable, redeemed by loving.


Victor Hugo's tale, "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame," familiar to all, is based on an even more familiar archetype—"Beauty and the Beast." Hugo enriches the story with Shakespearean complexity of plot, and multiplicity of themes, and casts over it the dark tones of Greek fatalism. Fond of striking juxtapositions, he creates a tragedy in which nobody gets what he wants, but the high are made low, and the low find redemption. To accomplish this, he constructs a "love triangle:" Quasimodo—"monster," foundling. The soul of the Cathedral, grown deaf ringing its bells, yet without place in the world; Frollo, the Archdeacon, guardian ("father") of Quasimodo, priest, alchemist; and Esmeralda, the exotic beauty. Esmeralda loves neither priest nor "bell-ringer," but the "Monster" is elevated by his encounter with her, while the priest is reduced by his desire to possess, which becomes a monster within him.

Hugo's original title was "Notre-Dame de Paris," and indeed the Cathedral is itself a character in the drama, embracing, in Gothic style, both the grotesque and the beautiful, so that, in the end, when the "stage" is strewn with bodies, and shattered illusions, there is radiance, like the light through a stained-glass window—the transcendence that is the purpose of tragedy.

Finally, this is the story of one, unlovable, redeemed by loving.

My song-cycle, "The Pope of Fools," is based on the Hugo novel, but its purpose is not to retell the story; rather, it is to express the spiritual evolvement of its central character, the hunchback, Quasimodo, To that end, I have selected for structure certain elements of the original plot and written a text that would enable Quasimodo to tell his own story.

One departure from the song-cycle format is the adding of violin and 'cello to the voice/piano setting. Not only does this allow me to suggest the weight and complexity of the story, but it lends itself to creating descriptive effects such as the sounds of wind, rain, birds, and even the sustained falling glissando signifying the death of Frollo. Equally important are the bell sounds fom the piano, an emotional commentary throughout.



Bend ye, to the Pope of Fools.
In a wilderness, the Beast must rule.
Friends—and slaves—to you I sing
A lullaby of the Cyclops King!

The Clown is your good shepherd now.
A crown of thorns sits on his brow.
Now Royalty must stand aside,
and Ugliness will have its ride!…


Oh faithful silences of stone,
And mourning bells—
Waiting still—
All that I have loved is lost!
Tell me what will be, my final friends,
When sorrow ends,
And all that I have known is passed.
No edifice, but mind—
No world, but wonder—
No flesh—its tyrannies, and riches.
The family of illusions,
Whence we all are orphaned,
Seeking, on this plane,
The light and sound of other souls…
No brother, but his thoughts,
No gypsy, but her mercy…
All else is passing, passing.

© Matthew Owens, 1995


Matthew was engaged to write this essay for the Ernst Bacon Society. In its pages he explores the nature and significance of one of the twentieth century's most towering composers. Mr. Owens was a close friend, editor, and performer of Ernst Bacon's works for 'cello.


"Bacon insisted on the primacy of melody at a time when fragmentation was the rule among all the arts. He once said about recent music, 'No one knows how to draw any more!' His sense of the elegant and expressive melodic shape is just as much a part of his instrumental as his vocal writing. The performer of a sonata, or trio has the satisfaction of spinning-out melodies grand and impassioned—tender and reflective—or the deeply personal, sometimes tragic lines of Bacon's own nature. His rhythms are the 'rough-hewn,' jazzy, exuberant, forward energies of America. His counterpoint underscores this energy. In a sense, it populates his scores, as his poets populate his songs and is always intelligent and vital. His instrumental music is filled with a physical sense of place—of geography—not only because many pieces are named after mountains, or plains, or rivers, but because one can feel in them the outsized monumentality of the American landscape. Both player, and listener are drawn into this landscape—in reverie and awe.…

… "Bacon was passionately devoted to the ongoing development of American culture—in this sense his mission is comparable to that of Kodaly, or Bartok, in Hungary—and yet no one would agree more that American is always the 'new world'—always incorporating, recombining, originating. As we enter a new era, it is clear that our culture—whatever it is—is profoundly affected by an enormous variety of non-European influences. There are so many new voices in the air that we are near to a chaos of cultural resources. Who knows how or when there will be another great moment of synthesis and the birth of a new tradition? The music of Ernst Bacon, if it is invited into the mix, will offer an example of the art of synthesis. But finally, none of this provides the guiding reason for a definitive publishing effort on Bacon's behalf. It is beauty that makes the argument. Knowing of this beauty, one cannot let it be buried. Such an effort, to bring this song to the ear of the future, is on behalf of us all."

©Matthew Owens, April 24, 1993

"Your essay has helped me a lot in my thinking and my work. It is a beautiful piece of writing."


The Garden is a comedy, set in the Garden of Eden and ending in the Apocalypse. It was originally performed in Berkeley by students of The Academy, Berkeley.



The Peacock, in the garden stands,
He listens to the earth's demands,
And even in his proudest dress,
He bows his head to acquiesce,
And spread his splendor on the ground,
And still his heart must make its sound!…

© Matthew Owens, 1987


While the world was still quite young,
Some of us retired.
New illusions can be found,
Others can be hired.

Pass the hat for dinosaurs,
Singing their last song,
Once we thought the world was ours,
Something went quite wrong.

Passing by this footprint, here,
Frozen in the sand,
It's colder than it was last year,
Running, I still stand.

Later, its been said, they sold,
The stars, the moon, the rain,
But though the earth looked dead and cold,
The sun came out again.

The thawing out of what's behind,
The impressario's hoax,
The three-ring circus of the mind,
Beauty, reaplaced by jokes.

When he's considered interesting,
Who measures what he owns,
He'll overlook the real thing,
And concentrate on bones.

© Matthew Owens, 1987

SUNDAY ON THE HILL WITH MARGARET—A Trip to the 'Cello Cathedral"

Written for the nintieth birthday gala for the renowned pedagogue, Margaret Rowell, held at the San Francisco Concervatory of Music. Matthew Owens was invited to be master of ceremonies. This two-page humorous verse is full of references familiar to students and friends of the beloved teacher.


We didn't go to workshops,
We didn't go to lessons,
We didn't go to master classes,
We went to "Margaret-sessions"

The High Priestess who greeted us,
With grace and fresh-cut flowers,
Had probably been tracking down
Her hair-net for two hours.

"Get your 'cellos out, she'd cry,
"Gavotte and minuette—
I'll be listening from the kitchen.
You big bums, now go to it!"

…But rubber snakes, on finger-boards
Were no cause for alarm.
One day she drove a little Chevrolet
The whole way down my arm.…

© Matthew Owens, 1991


A poem written for a dear friend. Later, this poem won a Golden Poet award.

On crowded streets, coming and going
Not stopping to ask, but knowing—
"You lost a friend, and you a father,
And you, and all of us, a child…"

There had been the summer sky,
Rising from the anxious earth,
Scent of magnolia and spice,
Brief torrents of cosmic dust, flaming,

And we wakened the slumbering petals,
Finding love's ardent sorrows,
Knowing something of this coming and going—
Nothing is fixed.

© Matthew Owens, 1989


What began as an invitation to speak at his brother's wedding became a fresh look at the traditional sacraments of marriage. Its insights, humor and wisdom caused such interest among those attending the event that it was printed, and is now in wide circulation.

We all know that Cupid’s arrow is just the beginning. But when we say "we are in love," what does that mean? At first, it seems that we are two human personalities—animated by zeal and preference; but, as we move closer to love itself, we begin to sense that to be "in love" means to have met with the miracle of being inside love—together—as Divine being. Generally, the Invocation is the calling upon Spirit to do its job—to bless this union and all gathered here. But these who stand together inside the miracle of love hold inside them the ecstatic realization that spirit blesses without our calling it forth! Maybe that is why we find lovers so attractive—and all we can do, really, is to call upon ourselves, individually, and together, to open to this blessing, and to accept that all of nature, all of humanity, is Divine.

Cultivate your inner voices. Support each other’s solitude. Then listen together. A lot happens when we are not looking. Struggling through the forest the best we can, by and by we come to a stillness. Everything is different. This is soul’s landscape—our own quiet communion; the columns of light through the trees point to their infinite source. You see each other as if for the first time. It is thrilling. It is awesome. The unpredictable majesty of mutual beings threatens the makeshift boundaries we call ourselves!

© Matthew Owens, 1997

Howie Clark is a beloved Berkeley figure. He is known for his enormous humor, intelligence, warmth, whimsy, endless variety of interests, and magical abilities with animals. He was also one of the first importers of Chinese goods after the opening of China. His fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays were famous occasions in Berkeley, and included readings of these two poems by Matthew Owens plus musical guests, also including Mr. Owens.


Canto I—His Smile
The cheshire grin,
Above his chin,
Betwixt each kindly ear,
is SHAMBALA to every word,
He don't want us to hear.

Canto II—His Feet
He'll ne'er deface,
Nor leave in trace,
His step upon the Ganges.
He runs his race,—
Chimeric grace—
On INEFFABLE phalanges.

Canto III—His Clothes—Song of Claw-Ha*
Now, in the month of April
And in the month of May,
And even in the month of June,
He changes every day.
But in the month of January,
February, too,
He only has one suit of clothes
And nothing much to do.…

*Claw-Ha is a nick-name for Howie

© Matthew Owens, 1982


(for his sixtieth birthday at Enrico's, San Francisco, July 1992)

As we traversed the evening streets
On Berkeley nights
Of waning lights
And college students wearing tights
And skateboard jockies' sidewalk rites,
One question lites upon our brain
And passing through, returns again:
Where is Howie Clark?
This being occupies no space—
An ancient smile for a face
Is never really any place
Except as probability suggests a proton's trace—
A mathematician's prayer—subatomic lace
Is never linearly there.
So where is Howie?…

…On Shattuck—near University
In full corporeal panoply
Ensconsed at tables piled high—
Burgers, dogs, and cold french fries
And condiments (safe gastronomy)
And tomes of Gurdieff rest nearby,
On beds of Chinese poetry
The king of "Where-I-want-to-be"
Emerges! Through the windows paneless view
The glow of Hickory-Pit and stew
Surges: amid the arbitrary
This smile of this cosmic elf
Wearing his familiar self—
His gift to us, the night's largess.
He is here, like the Moon
Who follows us.

© Matthew Owens, 1992


For fifteen years Matthew Owens taught philosophy at The Academy, Berkeley. His gift to each graduating class was a humorous poem for each student, which he read aloud at commencement. The presentation became a Berkeley legend, often drawing people who attended primarily to hear the reading of the poems. (All fifteen years of commencement poetry soon to be compiled and available.)


Most people occupy actual spaces
Gravity holding them in their places—their feet to their faces
With everything in between
Except for Justine.

Who occupies no factual space at all
But lives in what we’ve come to call
The O’Zone*—
Such a being,
Everywhere, nowhere, like the moon,
We think she’s in a certain spot and then she’s not, but soon…

Some nights the only light’s her face—
Which follows when we walk away
But leaves no trace—
And vanishes before the day.

*O-Zone is the popular name from Mr. Owens' classroom.


© Matthew Owens, 2004