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Premiere of Love While You May, A Song Cycle

On the eve of the live premiere of Love While You May, my song cycle for trombone and soprano, I am thrilled! Dr. Eileen Meyer Russell and Dr. Dana Zenobi will perform it Thursday, October 9, at 7 p.m. in the Lois Perkins Chapel at Southwestern University at Dr. Meyer Russell’s fall recital. I’ve had the opportunity to hear a sneak preview performance, and I could not be more pleased with the result of a year and a half of work on these songs. I wrote some brief program notes for the premiere, but I decided to expand on those a bit on my website.

When Dr. Meyer Russell commissioned me to compose new music for her spring 2013 recital, she told me she was interested in incorporating text into her show. This was perfect for me because I wanted to explore writing for voice. Though trombone with voice is an uncommon instrumentation today, it makes sense in the historical context of the trombone which, from its earliest days, was prized for its ability to blend with voices.

Early in the composing of “Let Down” (the third song in the cycle, but the first one I wrote) I began envisioning the entire song cycle. One of the guest composition teachers visiting school at the time pointed out to me that it was an ambitious idea, but sometimes I have ideas that just demand follow-through.

There are a couple of factors influencing the idea of this song cycle. While I was writing “Let Down,” with voice as my primary instrument I was also exploring Robert Schumann’s song cycle Frauenliebe und -Leben (A Woman’s Life and Love). For his song cycle, Schumann set poetry by Adalbert von Chamisso, a well-known scientist and poet. The song cycle presents snapshots of different phases in a woman’s life, seeking to express the emotions and wonders of a woman’s love from her point of view. Considering that both the text and music were written by men trying to represent a woman’s point of view, the song cycle is adequately successful, though from a modern point of view, the text is sometimes considered quaint at best, or condescending at worst.

In fall 2013, while I was composing “Wild Joy,” the second song in the cycle, I also decided to select only music by women composers for my vocal repertoire that semester. This was partly because the first three songs I selected happened to be by women. This was actually a very good thing to do, because I had to dig a little deeper than the standard repertoire books to find the music I wanted. I sang music by Lucrezia Vizzana, Barbara Strozzi, Louise Reichardt, Madeleine Dring, and Nadia Boulanger.

This was also the semester when I discovered Liza Lehmann (that’s pronounced “Leeza” according to her grandson, conductor Steuart Bedford). Lehmann is best known for songs written in her “light style” – mostly music for or about children. But she composed substantial pieces as well, especially for voice. Profoundly successful and popular as a composer in her time, she made song cycles popular in Britain. This further encouraged me in my pursuit of the song cycle I have now completed.

In addition to my own ideas, of course, I have to say this work was made possible by the love and support of my husband Emmitt, and the guidance of Jason Hoogerhyde. I especially want to acknowledge Eileen Meyer Russell and Dana Zenobi, who have enthusiastically embraced this music. Their encouragement helped me stay focused. Thank you!

As I mentioned in my earlier post about the premiere of “Let Down,” the text I set for this project is by Sara Teasdale, an early twentieth century American poet known for her clear and lyrical poetry, Teasdale was the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1918 for her collection Love Songs, published the previous year. For the song cycle, I selected poems that create a story in my mind of the all-too-common journey to heartbreak: we look for love, we find love, everything comes apart and we feel broken.

I. Be For Me

Oh, I am the brown bird pining
To leave the nest and fly.
Oh, be the fresh cloud shining,
Oh, be for me the sky!

I am the still rain falling,
Too tired for singing mirth.
Oh, be the green fields calling,
Oh be for me the earth!

The text for “Be For Me” comes from Teasdale’s poem “Moods.” This poem spoke to me of the urge to leave home and find destiny, and the desire to find love. I wanted this piece to be a simple introduction to the cycle, and to function as something of a warm up to help the performers prepare for the second song.

II. Wild Joy

I am wild, I will sing to the trees,
I will sing to the stars in the sky,
I love, I am loved, he is mine,
Now at last I can die!

I am sandaled with wind and with flame,
I have heart-fire and singing to give,
I can tread on the grass or the stars,
I love, I am loved.
Now at last I can live!

The text of “Wild Joy” comes from the poem “Joy.” It expresses the exuberant feelings of being in love.

III. Let Down

Love in my heart was a fresh tide flowing
Where the starlike sea gulls soar;
The sun was keen and the foam was blowing
High on the rocky shore.

But now in the dusk the tide is turning,
Lower the sea gulls soar,
And the waves that rose in resistless yearning
Are broken forevermore.

When I read “Tides,” the poem that provides the text for “Let Down,” I had images right away of what I thought the music should do. In the first half, trombone and vocal parts are both tonal and “together” as the text expresses the wonderful feelings of being in love. But at the trombone interlude in the middle, things take a turn to a strange place, and when the voice returns, it is tonal, but the trombone is not. They are no longer together; the tide has turned.

IV. Broken

Barren, broken, no light, no song.
My day is barren and broken,
Bereft of light and song.
A sea beach bleak and windy
Moans the whole day long.

To the empty beach at ebb tide,
Bare with its rocks and scars…
When the long day goes by
And I do not see your face,
The old wild, restless sorrow
Steals from its hiding place.

Come back with singing and light.

My day is barren and broken,
Bereft of light and song.

“Broken” might be my favorite piece of all that I have composed so far. I am still amazed at how well the music works with the text to express the dark and down place of the broken-hearted. The scale is octatonic throughout. The text comes from the poem “Ebb Tide.”

V. Never Fear

Never fear though it break your heart.
Out of the wound new joy will start.

Child, child, love while you can
The voice and the eyes and the soul of a man.
Though love be heaven or love be hell,
Only love proudly and gladly and well.
Never fear though it break your heart.
Out of the wound new joy will start.

Child, child, love while you may,
For life is short as a happy day.
Love, for the deadly sins are seven.
Only through love will you enter heaven.
Never fear though it break your heart.
Out of the wound new joy will start.

Never fear the thing you feel.
Only by love is life made real.
Child, child, love while you may,
For life is short as a happy day.

Teasdale’s poem “Child, Child” provides the text for the final piece of the song cycle, “Never Fear.” The music returns to the tonal world, as the text reminds us that though there is heartbreak in this life, there is also joy. Life is short, so in spite of all the heartache, we continue to seek love.

Finally, I would like to share a video that Dr. Meyer Russell put together about the song cycle.

Permanent link to this article: https://ashleyhkraft.com/premiere-of-love-while-you-may-a-song-cycle/

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