Letting Go Song Cycle for Baritone and Piano

2017 | texts by Donald Hall | 27 minutes

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Program Note

Donald Hall (1928–2018) was an American poet and writer. He was the author of more than 50 books, including children’s literature, biography, memoir, essays, and 22 volumes of verse.  He was named the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2006 (having previously been the Poet Laureate of New Hampshire 1984–1989).  He was married to poet and author Jane Kenyon (1947–1995) for 23 years and the two lived together at Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire until her death from leukemia. Hall and Kenyon met at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor Michigan where Hall was a teacher (1957–1975) and Kenyon was a student. Kenyon’s illness and death became the subject of several books of poetry by Hall in the 1990s.

I met Donald Hall in 2013 through a former University of Michigan college professor of mine, Bert Hornback, who had been an old friend and colleague of Don’s since the 1960s.

Here are notes I wrote to myself for creating Letting Go before I started writing any music:

Use the trauma of the death of Don’s wife (poet Jane Kenyon) as something to run away from; then, running back in time, look for clues to its enormity of expression and weight.  Imagine Jane’s death, for Don, to be like a knot that somehow gathers together a collection of past un-resolutions that are hidden in a tangle of unknowing.

Start with the knot and then unravel.  This, at any rate, is the story I tell myself as I begin looking for emotional intentions that might inform my search for musical materials.

More specifically, the poems and my expressive thinking in terms of their significance to a larger dramatic structure are as follows:

The Wish – past trauma (imagined letting go)
The Child – unknowing
Moon Shot – the anger of knowing ignorantly
Villanelle – knowing escape
By the Exeter River – remembering the past
White Apples – the present moving forward (letting go)

When I first met Don at Eagle Pond Farm, these were the ideas I presented to him.  Considering I didn’t know him at all, I suppose this was a little bold.  But as we talked I discovered Don was quite intrigued and ultimately enthusiastic about my thinking and the expressive structure I had presented for the cycle (imaginatively connecting poems that he had independently written and conceived years apart).

Over several years we continued to talk some (via email, and on the phone a little, and in person again) and I had a chance to play Don some of the music I was working on for the cycle and to have him read me some of the poems and talk about them as I was working through musical ideas.  While I’ve written a lot of vocal music over the years, this was the first time I developed a relationship with the writer of the words I was setting directly.  It was a lovely experience and I am only sorry Don didn’t live to hear a performance of the finished work.  That said, he was always telling me how he had no ear for music, which is a funny thing for a poet to say.  Still it is my hope that in taking this piece on the road, its echo will grow and that Don might hear it yet and smile.

Select Performances

  • Monadnock Music Festival:
    American Stories Village Concert

    Keith Phares, baritone
    Linda Osborn, piano
    Aldworth Manor
    Harrisville, NH
    July 18, 2019

  • Harvard University’s Dunster House Library Concert Series:
    An Evening of Vocal Music by Howard Frazin

    Keith Phares, baritone
    Linda Osborn, piano
    Dunster House Library
    Cambridge, MA
    April 28, 2019

  • Tufts University Masterclass

    Keith Phares, baritone
    Linda Osborn, piano
    Granoff Music Center
    Medford, MA
    April 25, 2019

  • Amherst College

    Keith Phares, baritone
    Linda Osborn, piano
    Buckley Recital Hall
    Amherst, MA
    March 18, 2019

  • Grolier Poetry Bookshop’s 90th Anniversary Celebration (Premiere)

    Keith Phares, baritone
    Linda Osborn, piano
    Club Oberon (American Repertory Theater)
    Cambridge, MA
    November 14, 2017