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Five New Songs

for high voice and piano

 

1. Anne Rutledge (Edgar Lee Masters)

2. A Birthday (Christina Rossetti)

3. *Joel de la playa (Martin Hennessy)

4. I Dream a World (Langston Hughes)

5. Thou wouldst be loved (Edgar A. Poe)

    * Spanish text

 

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While reading Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Abraham Lincoln), I was gobsmacked to come upon these lines from Anne Rutledge, an epitaph in Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. Popularly believed to have been the great love of Lincoln’s life, Anne Rutledge was born in 1816 and died of “brain fever” in 1835. I just knew I could set these lines. When I explored further and found 5 more lines beginning the poem, I at first tried to incorporate them in my setting but then decided no, I want just these 6 lines as they had astonished me in the Goodwin book.

 

I have always thought A Birthday was about a mother with her new born child. I chose the Latin rhythms because of the absolute joy of the character’s experience. She might not be able to dance but the hospital attendants certainly can. The meter shifts to 4/4 when the language becomes more grandiloquent at “Raise me a dais” but there is nevertheless a show biz element to the musical vocabulary which gives legs to her intoxicating happiness.  

 

I fell madly in love with a Venezuelan sculptor in 1990. I was getting off the cross town bus in my neighborhood when we ‘cruised’ each other and well… my apartment was one block away. He was studying at the Art Students League of New York on West 57th Street. He was extremely gifted and created these amazing marriages of wood and rock. I still treasure two plaster pieces he gave me.  I tried to improve my Spanish to impress him and when I was on a concert tour in Spain I penned this poem. His frequent reminiscences about playing as a child on the beach near Caracas provided the spark for Joel de la playa.   

 

After moving back to Caracas in the late 90’s, Joel Casique received major commissions and created a critically acclaimed body of work, particularly in plastic and other reflective materials that sought to concentrate light and cause volume to disappear. I remember well that he would place glasses of water around the apartment to observe the reflections. Tragically, Joel was murdered in his apartment in Caracas in 2010.

 

I had memorized and treasured I Dream a World years before setting it to music. When the music came out it radiated like the sun. The accompaniment cries out for an orchestra which must be provided by the precise and resonant playing of an excellent pianist.

 

Thou wouldst be loved is a setting of Poe’s To F________s S. O_________d, one of the several poems that he wrote to Frances Sargent Osgood, a contemporary poet, with whom he pursued a lively exchange of romantic poems. I actually set this poem in reaction to stage director Robin Guarino who complained about a dissonant passage in an opera we were rehearsing. She wanted me to write beautiful music. In a huff that evening I thought I can write beautiful music too and set this Poe miniature which I dedicate with a hint of revenge to my dear colleague, Robin.

--Martin Hennessy

A Birthday 

Wendy Hill, soprano

Martin Hennessy, pianist

all tracks

Joel de la playa

Will Ferguson, tenor

Thou wouldst be loved

Marnie Breckenridge

I Dream a World

Marnie Breckenridge, soprano