Early Winter Tree (2015)
For SATB Chorus and Harp
Thomas Colohan, Artistic Director of the Washington Master Chorale
Premiere and recording source:
"Noel! Noel!" Concert by the Washington Master Chorale / Thomas Colohan, conductor / Susan Robinson, harp
Church of the Epiphany, Washington, DC
December 20, 2015
“Leaves,” by Sara Teasdale, from The New Poetry: An Anthology (1917) (ed. H. Monroe)
One by one, like leaves from a tree,
All my faiths have forsaken me;
But the stars above my head
Burn in white and delicate red,
And beneath my feet the earth
Brings the sturdy grass to birth.
I who was content to be
But a silken-singing tree,
But a rustle of delight
In the wistful heart of night,
I have lost the leaves that knew
Touch of rain and weight of dew.
Blinded by a leafy crown
I looked neither up nor down—
But the little leaves that die
Have left me room to see the sky;
Now for the first time I know
Stars above and earth below.
Finding a poem that evoked the mood and uniqueness of winter authentically and deeply without any religious imagery was a challenge, but the depth, truth and uniqueness of Sara Teasdale’s poem “Leaves” struck me. Its bittersweet message—that loss sometimes brings new perspective and insight, and is therefore worth honoring even in the most difficult of circumstances—resonated with me not only on a symbolic, seasonal level, but on a personal one as well. In addition, the fact that Teasdale wrote this poem when she was my age gave her language extra pathos and impact for me.
This poem seems to me to be constructed in three sections of six lines each, so that is how I chose to structure the form of my vocal setting. I wrote a through-composed melody to mirror the way the tree in the poem finds perspective over time, with reflection. I also transformed the evocative, attention-grabbing “one by one” opening of the poem into an ostinato that is both dissonant and gentle, continually resolving and continually returning to tension, much like the overall mood and message of the piece and the cycle of the seasons as well. That ostinato returns at the close of the composition, in the men’s voices instead of the women’s, to reinforce the cyclicality of the piece.
To unify the sound world of the piece, and imbue both the vocal parts and the harp part with a misty, vaguely Impressionistic mood, I saturated the harmonic and melodic language with the Lydian Dominant mode. This pitch set is often found in jazz, but I wanted to use it in a different idiom, since for me it uniquely blends the dark warmth of Dorian mode with the unexpected bright accent of Lydian mode and the lush comfort of Mixolydian mode.
Other unifying elements in this work include glissandi, harmonics and grace-note octaves in the harp part; triplet rhythms and dotted-eighth-sixteenth rhythms in the harp part and the vocal parts; gentle dissonance, specifically emphasizing the interval of the major second; and more or less explicit text-painting of the words (“one by one,” “down,” etc.).
I am most grateful to Tom Colohan, The Washington Master Chorale’s Artistic Director, for championing my music over many years, for his attention to detail in the revision and rehearsal processes, and for including the Washington Master Chorale's live premiere recording of this work in the ensemble's most recent CD, This Endris Night. I dedicate this work to him and his ensemble. I am also grateful to Maestro Colohan and Board of Directors Chair Diane Kresh for working with me to select this text out of dozens of possible choices.