Sunday, December 4, 2011

December 5

Christ Child Asleep by Bernardino Luini

composed by the brilliant Eric Whitacre
lyrics written by Charles Anthony Silvestri
and performed by Polyphony

The evening hangs beneath the moon
A silver thread on darkened dune
With closing eyes and resting head
I know that sleep is coming soon

Upon my pillow, safe in bed
A thousand pictures fill my head
I cannot sleep my minds a flight
And yet my limbs seem made of lead

If there are noises in the night
A frighting shadow, flickering light
Then I surrender unto sleep
Where clouds of dreams give second sight
What dreams may come both dark and deep
Of flying wings and soaring leap

As I surrender unto sleep
As I surrender unto sleep

This piece, although not strictly a "Christmas Carol", is one that I am particularly drawn to this year, for the holiday season. The words put me in mind of a child on Christmas Eve, filled with excitement and trying desperately to stay awake for Santa Claus... but ultimately surrendering to slumber. Whitacre's ability to create a "sound-scape" never ceases to amaze me, and if you listen carefully, you can envision the child's breathing changing to a shallow, rhythmic pace by the end of the piece.

Last year, it was Eric Whitacre's "Lux Arumque" that captivated me at a magnificent carol service at St. John's Church in Elora, Ontario. I have, since then, been completely fascinated by this brilliant young composer's work, both in live performance, and with his "virtual choir" performances, which are readily available on the internet via Youtube, as well as on Mr. Whitacre's own website.

"Sleep" has a most unusual-- and nearly tragic-- story behind it. Thank heavens the piece was rescued by poet Charles Anthony Silvestri. In Mr. Whitacre's own words:

In the winter of 1999 I was contacted by Ms. Julia Armstrong, a lawyer and professional mezzo-soprano living in Austin, Texas. She wanted to commission a choral work from me that would be premiered by the Austin ProChorus (Kinley Lange, cond.), a terrific chorus in which she regularly performed.

The circumstances around the commission were certainly memorable. She wanted to commission the piece in memory of her parents, who had died within weeks of each other after more fifty years of marriage; and she wanted me to set her favorite poem, Robert Frost’s immortal Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. I was deeply moved by her spirit and her request, and agreed to take on the commission.

I took my time with the piece, crafting it note by note until I felt that it was exactly the way I wanted it. The poem is perfect, truly a gem, and my general approach was to try to get out of the way of the words and let them work their magic. We premiered the piece in Austin, October 2000, and the piece was well received. Rene Clausen gave it a glorious performance at the ACDA National Convention in the spring of 2001, and soon after I began receiving letters, emails, and phone calls from conductors trying to get a hold of the work.

And here was my tragic mistake: I never secured permission to use the poem. Robert Frost’s poetry has been under tight control from his estate since his death, and until a few years ago only Randall Thompson (Frostiana) had been given permission to set his poetry. In 1997, out of the blue, the estate released a number of titles, and at least twenty composers set and published Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening for chorus. When I looked online and saw all of these new and different settings, I naturally (and naively) assumed that it was open to anyone. Little did I know that the Robert Frost Estate had shut down ANY use of the poem just months before, ostensibly because of this plethora of new settings.

After a LONG legal battle (many letters, many representatives), the estate of Robert Frost and their publisher, Henry Holt Inc., sternly and formally forbid me from using the poem for publication or performance until the poem became public domain in 2038.

I was crushed. The piece was dead, and would sit under my bed for the next 37 years because of some ridiculous ruling by heirs and lawyers. After many discussions with my wife, I decided that I would ask my friend and brilliant poet Charles Anthony Silvestri (Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, Lux Aurumque, Nox Aurumque, Her Sacred Spirit Soars) to set new words to the music I had already written. This was an enormous task, because I was asking him to not only write a poem that had the exact structure of the Frost, but that would even incorporate key words from “Stopping”, like ‘sleep’. Tony wrote an absolutely exquisite poem, finding a completely different (but equally beautiful) message in the music I had already written. I actually prefer Tony’s poem now…

And there it is. My setting of Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening no longer exists. And I won’t use that poem ever again, not even when it becomes public domain in 2038.

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