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Program Notes

Spring 2013
Poetic License

Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 8 p.m.
Allegra Martin, director
Josh Lawton, piano

Jacqueline Ludwig and Brent Selby, cellists


Today’s concert celebrates the life of Mordena Babich, a member of Cantilena’s alto section for many years, who passed away last spring. She wrote novels, short stories, and poems, and she was a passionate reader. Our program this spring is inspired by her love of excellent poetry and transcendent writing. Mordena was the enemy of the insipid, and we knew that the text of any music we performed had to meet her demanding standards for the written word. Thus, we conceived the idea of a concert based on poetry we think she would have been pleased to sing.


Cantilena also wanted to commission a work in her honor. Her husband Chris suggested Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky,” as Mordena had a fondness for nonsensical poems and an excellent sense of humor. The Shera-Babich family supported us in pursuing our wish, and “Jabberwocky” became the foundation of the program. Cantilena was fortunate to be able to commission local composer Scott Wheeler to write for us. Having heard Scott’s music before, I knew he would be able to hit just the right balance between the ridiculous and the dramatic. The rest of the program continued to grow with settings of great poems by Yeats, Shakespeare, Kenyon, Sarton, Cummings, and others.


If you are here because Mordena was a friend, we hope this concert serves as an opportunity to remember and appreciate the many facets of a talented and inspirational woman.

If you never knew Mordena, we hope this program allows you to revel in the satisfaction that comes when great composers set great texts to music. We also hope it will give you a glimpse of the combination of insight, scholarship, intensity, and quick wit that made Mordena such a beloved member of our chorus.


Our first poet on the program is May Sarton (1912-1995) who attended the Shady Hill School and later the Cambridge Rindge and Latin school here in Cambridge. Her poem “Now I Become Myself” was written in 1953, the middle of her career, and explores what it means to discover and rest in one’s own identity, and the importance of being unhurried and grounded. Sarton faced particular challenges about being strong in the face of public scrutiny, as she was a lesbian and frequently feared that all her work would be dismissed or pigeonholed on the basis of her sexual identity. The musical setting by Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947) is highly dramatic. It starts with a bold musical statement that reflects the strength that comes from knowing oneself; then the main portion of the piece has hurried rhythmic patterns that reflect the scattered, frantic nature of everyday life, complete with scurrying sound effects from the chorus. This musical rush eventually yields to firmer, calmer music and a return to the strength promised in the opening.


Francisco X. Alarcón (b. 1954) is an American poet and educator from California. He writes poetry for both children and adults on a wide array of subjects, including Latino identity and the importance of community and families. Roger Bourland (b. 1952) has composed music for numerous poems by Alarcón, and says on his blog “I have always resonated with the joy and color in his poetry.” Both of today’s songs are from Bourland’s Alarcón Madrigals, Book 2. The first, “Both Page and Pen,” is a sensuous love song that incorporates the imagery of writing, and the second, “Another Language,” describes the underlying current of deep communication in everyday sounds and interactions. Bourland’s settings are light and energetic with a strong rhythmic drive. Both poet and composer are active online; Alarcón has an


E. E. Cummings (1894-1962) is one of the most famous American poets. Raised in Cambridge in a Unitarian family, Cummings is known for using many avant-garde techniques in his poetry, playing with capitalization, punctuation, page layout, syntax, and spelling. (This play with capitalization frequently extends to his name, but current scholarship holds that the capitalized version is preferred, and in fact was on occasion specifically requested by Cummings himself.)  Portraying the avant-garde and frequently visual nature of his poetry through music can be a challenge, but Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987) often rose to the task, writing numerous choral works with Cummings’ texts. Persichetti often employs an angular style with a strong but off-kilter rhythm to reflect the unexpected way in which the poetry is laid out. This is exemplified in “Dominic Has a Doll,” though Persichetti chooses to break ideas in different places than Cummings does. In contrast, “This is the Garden” has a much more traditional layout on the page with longer lines of text. There are longer phrases in the music as well, giving a sense of the way the sentences flow through the lines. 


About his piece I Know a Place, composer Kenneth Seitz says:

The Martha Hogan text was submitted by Mordena as part of the process of choosing texts for music Cantilena commissioned me to compose for a spring concert some eleven years ago. "I Know a Place" is the last (and probably my favorite) of the resulting "Three Heartfelt Songs", performed in May of 2002 and included on the CD that was made of that performance. I was very pleased to have Martha's text to work with, and sharing the creative process with Martha and (by extension) Mordena made for an especially satisfying experience.

Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) was born in the Midwest and moved to New Hampshire in her twenties, where she remained for the rest of her life. Her poetry frequently deals with the cycle of nature and rural imagery, and also with her lifelong battle with depression. Both of these aspects can be heard in her poem “Let Evening Come.” The musical setting by Brian Holmes (b. 1946) is lush with rich, swelling harmonies and delicately paints in sound the many bucolic images that Kenyon presents. Listen for how the piano frequently anticipates or echoes fragments of melody that the chorus sings.


Our second half opens with Three Two-Part Songs by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Britten sets three poems by Walter de la Mare (1873-1956). De la Mare was an English writer particularly known for his poetry and stories for children, though he also wrote ghost stories, horror stories, and other works for adults. De la Mare was Britten’s favorite poet when he was a teenager, and though there is no evidence of a friendship between them, de la Mare’s son Richard became the chairman of Britten’s music publisher in the 1960’s, so it is reasonable to think that poet and composer might have met.


2013 marks one hundred years since Britten’s birth, and we will continue to celebrate his music in December, when we perform his beloved A Ceremony of Carols.The three songs we will sing today are tightly structured and utterly charming. It is difficult to believe that these were the first of his works ever to be published, when he was 20 years old! He originally titled them “Three Studies in Canon.” The canons are easy to hear in the first and third songs, where witches and monkeys respectively scamper after each other. In the middle song, “The Rainbow,” the canon can be heard in the piano opening. Britten then plays with the idea of having the canon’s melody stretched out in longer notes in the voices while at the same time the same phrase is played at a quicker tempo in the piano.


The works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) need little introduction, and his poetry and plays have been set to music by scores of composers. Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) proclaimed that Shakespeare was “one of my favorite poets,” and that “I have had him in my hands from my earliest childhood and I read and re-read him continually.” Macbeth was the first of Verdi’s several operas based on Shakespeare’s plays. (He had plans for more that never saw completion, including King Lear.) The text passed through the hands of both a translator and a librettist, so fans of the Bard may notice a few changes in the words of the witches, who have increased from three in number to an entire cackling three-part chorus. This scene opens Act 3, when a potion is being prepared to give Macbeth the prophecies and visions that will be his downfall. Verdi wanted the witches’ music to be “vulgar, yet bizarre and original.” His musical setting makes dealing with poisonous toads and yelping porcupines sound like a particularly good night out!


About his piece Jabberwocky, Scott Wheeler says:

Allegra Martin first approached me about setting Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky in the fall of 2012; I was pleased to take on the challenge of this classic nonsense text. I have known Jabberwocky since childhood, and I’m sure there have been many settings, but I don’t remember ever hearing one. I figured I’d keep things simple by setting it strophically, but I quickly realized that Carroll was subversive not only in his inventive wordplay but in his balance of strophic verse and ballad-like storytelling. So the repeating, refrain-like elements of the music became finer-grained than I at first expected; the process gave me a deeper appreciation for this wonderful poem. It was Allegra’s inspired suggestion that the accompaniment be for two cellos, whose bows could suggest “vorpal swords” and whose sound could provide a richness and a transparency that would beautifully set off the women’s voices.

Jabberwocky was commissioned by Cantilena, “in chortling celebration of the life of Mordena Babich.” (Allegra’s note: Credit for the cello idea goes to Chris Shera, Mordena’s husband. Both Chris and their daughter Sarita play the cello, hence the symbolism of two cellos.)


If one Lewis Carroll setting is grand, two must be better! “Jabberwocky” is from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There; “Father William” is from his earlier novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll was actually a pen name; Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) was the author of these two books and many other stories and poems, as well as being a mathematician, logician, Anglican deacon, and photographer. His fiction and poetry is known for its wordplay, fantasy, humor, and nonsensical nature. American composer Irving Fine (1914-1962) must have found Carroll’s work particularly attractive, as he composed music for six Carroll poems, released in two sets of three, and even titled one of his short orchestral pieces “The Red Queen’s Gavotte.” In “Father William,” Fine wittily plays up the overly pompous nature of the youth asking Father William some rather judgmental questions and the mellow nature of Father William’s  humorous replies.


Our last piece is a setting of the “Lake Isle of Innisfree” by a poet Mordena greatly admired, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). Yeats spent a portion of his childhood growing up in the county of Sligo in northwest Ireland, and the poem is about an uninhabited island in the middle of Lough Gill, a lake near Sligo Bay. Yeats’ father read Thoreau’s Walden to him as a boy, which he cites as an influence on this poem. It was published fairly early in his career, in 1890, and during his life it was one of his most popular poems. It addresses the longing for an escape to the simplicity and solitude of nature. The setting was written by Eleanor Daley (b. 1955), a Canadian conductor and composer, in 2001. This song has particular resonance for Cantilena, for we love to sing this tender music and chose to share it last spring at Mordena’s memorial service. For this song we invite any Cantilena alumnae in the audience to come up and sing with us.


We hope you enjoy the many different ways in which words and music influence each other, and we are grateful you could share with us this celebration of the life of a writer, musician, and friend who had such an powerful impact on the lives of many of us.






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