How Can I Keep From Singing?

As choirs around the world went silent in 2020, many composers struggled to find the inspiration to create.  Desiring to compose something that would help singers get back to music making, Elaine Hagenberg (b. 1979) wrote Songs from Silence as a gift to the choral community.  She dedicated it “to the choral community in hope of healing during times of silence and distance.” It is musically simple and can be sung in different voicings and with as few or as many singers as are available.  The short but poignant text by Brian Newhouse speaks to the connection between heart and voice.

If the song of my heart falls silent, sing to me.

When our voices stir the embers, my heart remembers our song again.

We move without pause to Joseph Martin’s The Awakening.  Written for the Texas Choral Directors Association’s 40 anniversary in 1995, Martin (b. 1959) could not possibly have imagined that the words he penned 25 years earlier would become reality in 2020.  The first section of the piece describes a nightmare with a setting in a land where no music exists, only silence -- “Where no bird sang, no steeples rang…no alleluia, not one hosanna, no song of love, no lullaby.” The whole opening depicts hopelessness and despair.  The middle section calls the listener to wake up as it breathes new life into the land.  Martin describes it as “representative of the coming of dawn and the hope of a new day. The song, no longer dormant, emerges from the shadows and begins to shine.”  This is exactly what we are doing today as we return to singing.  The finale praises the power of music as the singers proclaim “Let music never die in me, forever let my spirit sing.”  The song ends with a jubilant cry to “Let Music Live.”  In the spring of 2020, I had no idea when Voces Novae would be able to sing together again or be able to share music with an audience, but I knew that whenever it happened, The Awakening would be the foundation of the concert, representing the journey we had taken to get to this moment.

Sing Me to Heaven  by Daniel Gawthrop (b. 1949) will likely be familiar to Voces Novae audiences.  Popular with choirs around the world for its beautiful marriage of text and melody, Sing Me to Heaven has been frequently performed and recorded since its release in 1991, with more than half a million copies sold.  The text, written by Gawthrop’s wife, Jane Grimer, is elegant and compelling, encouraging us to sing in all kinds of situations as a way to deal with heartbreak, sorrow, isolation and despair.  The music complements the text beautifully beginning with single melodic lines that grow into beautiful, lush harmonies.

We return to a dream world in Elaine Hagenberg’s The Music of Stillness.  This setting of Sara Teasdale’s There Will Be Rest focuses not on singing specifically, but on the music that can be found by being calm, still and peaceful.  On her website, Hagenberg describes her inspiration for this piece -- 

One autumn night, when the weather first turned cold, I was enjoying the midwestern countryside and the entire sky was filled with stars. As the cold air hit my lungs, the expanse of the heavens took my breath away, and this is the music I heard. The music of a dream world under the stars where we can leave our troubles and find this momentary “crystal of peace” and rest. A place where beauty and calm exist, and all else fades away.

Gorgeous melodies and lush harmonies pair perfectly with a beautiful lyric to create this stunning piece which is rewarding to singers and audiences alike.

When Music Sounds by Connor J. Koppin (b. 1991) is a dramatic setting of the poem by Walter John de la Mare, an English poet from the early 20th century.  The piece opens with a  fanfare containing energetic dissonances which give way to beautiful lyric melodies supported by changing textures.  De la Mare’s text reflects on how music changes our perspective, making everything more beautiful and bringing out the best in us.  To close, the music is calm and peaceful, fading to nothing with the repetition of the phrase “all that I was I am.”       

How Can I Keep from Singing is based on a 19th century hymn by Robert Lowry, with words attributed to Anna Bartlett Warner.  Z. Randall Stroope (b. 1953) freely adapted the text for this arrangement which features the men of the choir.  The text is a confident statement of resolve that no matter how stormy our lives are, one’s faith can provide “inmost calm.” Stroope masterfully incorporates text painting throughout the piece.  For the words, “It sounds an echo in my soul,” he sets the text in a canon so the listener hears the text 3 times. In the second verse and again at the end, you can hear sounds of undulating waves in the voice parts, portraying the storm that is mentioned several times in the lyrics.  

Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen (b. 1980) composed Flight Song for Dr. Anton Armstrong and the St. Olaf Choir.  The lyrics were written by the Welsh-Scottish poet, Euan Tait.  Describing his inspiration for the text, Tait explains that he uses, “...the idea of flight as a metaphor for the beginning of a young adult life…A human life preparing to take off, and the movements of a conductor’s arm like the beating of a soul’s great wings, are images at the heart of this piece.”  The text eloquently describes music and singing as sources of identity, community, comfort and motivation. The music complements the text with stunning melodies and harmonies, enhanced by expressive dynamics.

If Music Be the Food of Love by David Dickau (b. 1953) is a favorite among Voces Novae members.  The text is a 17th century love poem by Colonel Henry Heveningham which begins with a phrase from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In the poem, the speaker seems to be taken by another’s music as well as their physical attractiveness. Appreciating both, he praises the music while weaving in descriptive physical attributes.  The music is expressive and romantic, with beautiful melodies and modern harmonies. Throughout the piece, the texture alternates between accompanied and a cappella segments.  

With a text by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alway Something Sings, by Dan Forrest (b. 1978) expresses a confident reliance that in all things there is song -- music is found in the good and beautiful things, but also in dark and menial things.  Forrest’s music begins and ends with simple, gentle tones. But between those moments are dramatic and energetic sonorities, creating a cinematic feeling. The soprano solo moves in and out of the texture, representing the ever-present song.  

Tying together all of the themes from this concert is Forever Music by Mark Hayes (b. 1953). The powerful text by Susan Bentall Boersma expresses the depth and breadth of music’s impact from the individual to all of humanity.  Each of the four verses encourages us to sing with a different purpose. Verse one begins, “O sing in language of the heart.”  Verse two, “O sing in language of the soul.”  Verse three, set to a new melody, begins “O sing in language of the mind.”  Finally, verse four says, “O sing a song for all the world.”  After verse three, Hayes temporarily borrows from the vocal jazz idiom to highlight the word “music” with tight, contemporary, a cappella harmonies.  Before continuing to verse four, Hayes incorporates the Scottish folk song O Waly Waly with lyrics depicting song as a metaphor for life.  We encourage our audience to sing along for this portion. CLICK HERE for music.

Each life a song, a laugh, a cry, a soaring hymn, a lullaby,

Sung from the heart and soul and mind,

Forever music for all time.

Today, Voces Novae would like to dedicate this song to the memories of four members of the VN family who have passed since our last concert in November 2019 -- Frank A. Heller, III; Lewis Washington; Rebecca Emerke; and Joey Southerland.

We close our concert with I Have Had Singing by Ron Jeffers (1943-2017).  This short reflection on singing is our benediction.  The text comes from Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, Portrait of an English Village.  In this work, Blythe recounts the stories of villagers in Suffolk County, England.  This particular segment comes from the words of 85-year old Fred Mitchell (a pseudonym) speaking about the difficulty of life growing up on a farm, but remembering with fondness the singing that permeated village life.  It reminds us of the importance of singing in our lives, no matter what our skill level.

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