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Presenting Ned Rorem's Evidence

Ned Rorem told the Dresser when she interviewed him in 2005 that Evidence of Things Not Seen is his magnum opus. Quite frankly, the Dresser never anticipated hearing a live performance of this art song cycle which includes the musical setting of 36 texts (mostly poems) by 24 different writers, one born as early as 1637 (Thomas Ken) and another as late as 1953 (Mark Doty). Commissioned "by the New York Festival of Song and the Leonore and Ira Gershwin Trust for the benefit of the Library of Congress," the work for a quartet of singers (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) with piano premiered at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in January 1998, followed by a performance in April that year at the Library of Congress. Much to the Dresser's surprise and without significant publicity, a group calling themselves Words & Music mounted a performance of this challenging evening-length work on February 22, 2008, at The Lyceum in Alexandria, Virginia.
Group.jpgCoincidently the timing of the presentation could not have been better for the Dresser, who, on February 28, will hear and see a full production of Our Town, Rorem's opera with poet-librettist J. D. McClatchy. So when a composer friend pointed out this concert, the Dresser was eager to attend.

QUAKER ROOTS

Evidence of Things Not Seen is divided into three sections--Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. Theodore Roethke's "From Whence Cometh Song" opens the work and William Penn's "Evidence of Things Not Seen" closes this impressionistic offering of the Great Chain of Being from life and love to faith and death, where death is not necessarily a finality. Given that Rorem, a lapsed Quaker, has written that he believes in poetry and not God, it is interesting to see that Rorem highlights a prose text by William Penn, the Quaker who paved the way for the creation of the United States with The Frame of Government of Pennsylvania, a constitution first drafted in 1682 that advocated religious tolerance for the province of Pennsylvania.

Here is the section of Penn's essay from which Rorem derives the song cycle's title:

EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN

... Faith lights us, even through the grave, being the
Evidence of Things not seen. And this is the Comfort
of the Good, that the Grave cannot hold them, and that
they live as soon as they die. For Death is no more than
the Turning of us over from Time to Eternity. Death then,
being the Way and Condition of Life, we cannot love
to live, if we cannot bear to die ...

ROREM'S EQUAL MASTERY OF WORDS AND MUSIC

What is clear, from the selection of poems is that Rorem has a great understanding of literature and the written word in equal proportion to his ability to set words to music. Poets that Rorem drew from include literary greats such as W. H. Auden (5 poems), Charles Baudelaire, Hart Crane (2 poems), Robert Frost, A. E. Housman, Langston Hughes, Theodore Roethke, Walt Whitman (2 poems), Oscar Wilde, and William Yeats. Lesser read poets (some hardly known by people who read poetry today) include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Mark Doty, Paul Goodman (4 poems), Thomas Ken, Jane Kenyon, Rudyard Kipling, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and William Wordsworth. Prose selections come from Colette, Julien Green, Paul Monette, and William Penn (2), and John Woolman. How Rorem makes Elizabeth Barrett Browning's emotionally gushing poem "How Do I love Thee?" with all its over emphasized capitalized words like Being, Grace, Right, Praise fit with Auden's down-to-Earth "The More Loving One" persuades the Dresser that Rorem understands how literature of disparate styles and periods can not only co-exist but create a larger meaning.

HOW DO I LOVE THEE? (Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and the Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,--I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!--and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.


THE MORE LOVING ONE
(W. H. Auden)

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime
Though this might take me a little time.

Copyright © 1958 W. H. Auden



HAVING THE BREATH TO SING THIS WORK

New World Records made a recording of Evidence of Things Not Seen in 1999. In the liner notes of the album Steven Blier said the following about Rorem's music. The Dresser has annotated Blier's comments by adding the writers' names to the titles mentioned.

The musical language of the piece will be familiar to those who know and love Rorem's music, but within that language there are many dialects. There is straightforward, flowing tonality in solo songs and in ensembles like the piercingly beautiful "Requiescat," [Wilde] but there is also a kind of recitative/dialogue with the piano ("Now is the dreadful midnight," [Goodman] and "Dear, though the night"[Auden]), a capella four-part hymn writing (at the end of Sections One and Two, very challenging to perform), coloristic pieces in which the musical form echoes the text in a kind of tonal onomatopoeia ("On an echoing road," [Colette] "The Sick Wife," [Kenyon] "The Old Men," [Yeats] "His Beauty Sparkles" [Goodman]), and intensely rhythmic declamatory pieces ("The Comfort of Friends [Penn]," "Faith" [Doty]).

Rorem's vocal writing presents certain challenges. He demands a long breath of his singers; one soprano muttered, "He must think we can all sustain phrases like Leontyne." He sometimes puts the verbal stresses on unaccented notes, as French composers do. There are some tough vocal leaps, and his rhythms are not easy to master. ...The many ensemble pieces are dazzling in their variety, from rich massed chords to eerie effects in octaves, from intricate contrapuntal intertwining to simple parallel movement.

The Dresser quotes this analysis by Steven Blier who was the pianist playing on the recording of Evidence, because it is an accurate and daunting public statement about the difficulty of this work. The Dresser imagines that anyone considering learning and then performing this work would have to think hard about whether to embark on such an undertaking.

Music & Words performers included soprano Melissa Coombs, contralto Bailey Whiteman, tenor Terrance L. Johns, baritone Steven Combs, and pianist Virginia Sircy. The songs include 18 solos, six duets, four trios, and eight quartets. The singers performed admirably well, especially in the ensemble numbers such as "O Where Are You Going?" (W. H. Auden) and "Hymn for Morning (Thomas Ken). "As I walked Out One Evening" (W. H. Auden) featured the quartet with break out solos for the tenor. Johns performed well in this number that features a jazzy opening and syncopation throughout. However, the Dresser wished that Johns had delivered the ending to this piece with less abruptness. Here's how this poem ends:

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming
And the deep river ran on

According to a music professor in the audience with whom the Dresser spoke after the concert, Johns' abruptness is a type of song styling that he chose to exercise in all his solo numbers. The Dresser believes the last line "the deep river ran on" [from Auden's poem "As I walked Out One Evening"] begs for extension with a held note that fades slowly.

Other notable performances included Melissa Coombs delivering the vocal gymnastics of "A Learned Man" (Stephen Crane);
Soprano.jpg the tenor-baritone duet "Is My Team Ploughing: (A. E. Housman)--Johns and Combs handled the variety of this music ably; Steven Combs delivering the drama of "Faith," the Mark Doty poem about A.I.D.S.;
Baritone.jpg and the soprano-alto duet "On an Echoing Road (Colette)--Coombs and Bailey Whiteman handled this fluid music with echoing parts beautifully. Throughout this 90-minute performance, Virginia Sircy interpreted Rorem's piano music with artful style and grace. Her performance alone would be worth anyone's attendance. Also one should never label this piano part piano accompaniment because the piano score is every bit as challenging and exciting as the vocal score.
Pianist.jpg

The Dresser recommends going out of your way to hear this work. The Music & Words performers will give another concert of Evidence of Things Not Seen on April 18, 2008 (7:30 pm) at Calvary Baptist 755 8th St NW, Washington, DC 20001. Call 703-421-1271 for more information.

Photos by Diana Combs

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Comments (2)

I now feel I know Rorem in a way not available to me before. This is reason for gratitude.

David:

Dang, I missed this performance! I was lucky enough to attend the 1998 LoC concert and it was fantastic. I'm glad they'll be doing again in April.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 24, 2008 4:03 PM.

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