Half Notes: Let Me Sing

Half Notes: Let Me Sing

The three remarkable women whose poems inspired “Let Me Sing” probably never knew one another, but composer Eric Malmquist brings them together into one seamless orchestral conversation. Or maybe a panel discussion is a better analogy. Given voice by the orchestra—with guest Soprano Ariana Strahl—each poet will speak in turn, leading us on a musical passage from social confusion and despair, to quiet hope, and finally to the unflagging conviction that our music will “hush the jangle and discords of sorrow, pain, and wrong.”

We hear first from the poet Djuna Barnes (“From Third Avenue On”). Listen as the orchestra seems to go through fits and starts—the mood first short and clipped, and then flowing, and then short and clipped again. That’s the sound and feel of the poet jabbing her thumb in the eye of the misogynistic society of the early 20th century, where people have “their blooms in jars,” and “no longer stare into the stars.”

In contrast, the second poem, “Winter Stars” by Sara Teasdale, invites us to grasp for the stars as the only source of hope. In 1914, as she looks east across the Atlantic, she finds herself weighed down by the hate-filled and destructive nationalism in Europe that is giving rise to the Great War. Yet above those same eastern skies, Orion still shines, and the “faithful beauty of the stars” gives the poet guarded hope. To reflect the disconnect between the beauty of the stars above and the banality of the world below, the music exudes a sense of quiet menace, of dissonance that rises to moments of intensity. Torn between the hope-inducing beauty above and the despair-inducing reality on earth, the orchestra has us waiting for the other shoe to drop, and there is no hint of ever relaxing.

The third and final poem does not allow us to relax either. But it brings a completely different mood. In “Songs for the People,” Frances Ellen Watkins Harper looks on the same world, with all its trials and troubles, and proclaims: Relax? Who has time to relax? There’s too much music to be made; too much singing to be done! “Our world, so worn and weary, needs music, pure and strong.” It’s a mission. And the orchestra takes up the mission by changing from menacing and dissonant to flowing and melodic—creating a sort of non-militaristic call to action. As the piece draws to a close, and the musicians rest their instruments, do not be surprised if you find yourself so taken up by the orchestra’s mood that you continue to hum the melody as you leave, exactly as Frances Harper would have wished.

About his approach to composing, Eric Malmquist had this to say in a recent conversation. “I love setting American poetry to music, striving to express the mood of the poem, and careful not to do violence to the poem.” As you listen to Ariana Strahl and the orchestra perform “Let Me Sing,” you will realize that Malmquist has not just composed music to accompany or enhance his chosen poems. Instead, he has allowed each poem to instill his music with its spirit, thus enabling us through his music to experience the poems and be touched by them to our core.

– Dan Lory

Hear Let Me Sing at CCO’s Oct 26 concert at St James cathedral: MORE INFO AND TICKETS


About Half-Notes:

By popular demand, once again we are offering our series called Half-Notes. Half-Notes are reflections by Dan Lory, CCO’s non-expert in residence, on each of the compositions performed in our concert.

Dan Lory calls himself a music lover who is unencumbered by knowledge of music theory. Enjoy Dan’s take on each piece that will be performed at CCO’s October 26 concert. We think these reflections will help all listeners—from music experts to the theory-unencumbered among us—enjoy the concert more fully.