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The words of Robert Frost April 15, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in chorale.

One of the pieces we performed on Sunday was a piece with a quite remarkable, if depressing, history.  The story is told by the composer, Eric Whitacre, in the introduction to the score.  The song is called “Sleep”, and it’s a wonderfully evocative piece.  However, the piece we sang is a long way from the way it started, back in 1999.

The piece was originally a commission.  The lady wanted a setting of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”, in memory of her parents, who had died within weeks of each other after fifty years of marriage, and whose favourite piece it was.

Whitacre took on the commission, and the piece was premiered in 2001, to great acclaim.  He started getting requests from conductors across the country.  And then, the shock.  Whitacre discovered that the Robert Frost Estate, through their lawyers, had closed the door to all settings of Frost’s work.  He had, perhaps naively, thought that the existence of Randall Thompson’s “Frostiana” was a sign that Frost’s poetry could be set to music and performed. And, again, perhaps naively, he hadn’t checked.  But no, until Frost’s poems enter the public domain, in 2038, Eric Whitacre’s setting of “Stopping By Woods” has to sit in a chest under his bed.

And then, an astonishing brainwave.  Whitacre himself commissioned his friend, the poet Charles Anthony Silvestri, to write a new poem to fit the already existing musical setting.  To quote Whitacre:

I was asking him to not only write a poem that had the exact structure of the Frost poem, but that it would even incorporate key words from “Stopping By Woods, like ‘sleep’. Tony wrote an absolutely exquisite poem, finding a completely different (but equally beautiful) message in the music I had already written.

And it was the Whitacre/Silvestri piece “Sleep” that we performed on Sunday.  It’s just a stunning work – for me, one of the major highlights of the program.

To finish with Whitacre again, expressing a sentiment that’s hard to disagree with:

..my only regret in all of this was that I was way too innocent in my assumption that lawyers and heirs would understand something as simple and delicate as the choral art.



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