Published with Choral Settings
Here you will find an alphabetical list of my poems with published choral settings. I have included a brief description of the text or commissioning details, to provide some context not included in the score or in my published anthology, or for use as program notes for choirs performing the choral settings.
ACROSS THE VAST, ETERNAL SKY (2010) for Ola Gjeilo [GIA/Walton Music]
Commissioned for the Salt Lake Vocal Artists and their conductor, Brady Allred. Ola had asked me for several poems relating to the theme of rebirth, and I gave him this twist on the usual theme, using the image of the phoenix as the symbol of rebirth.
A BRONZE TRIPTYCH (2012) for Dan Forrest [Hinshaw Music]
Commissioned in celebration of the anniversary of a university whose symbol was a bell. Dan wanted a text about a bell, and I chose to tell the story of the bronze bell, from the mining of the copper and tin from the ground, to the early life of that bronze as weapons of war, and then to its reforging as a bell.
THE CHELSEA CAROL (2012) for Eric Whitacre [Shadow Water Music]
For this Advent text I chose a darker, more overtly pagan hymn to the Mother (Virgin or otherwise) adapted from an earlier version entitled Adveni, Sapientia. The images here are among the multiple roles the Mother plays as the wheel of the seasons turns about us. Advent is a time of waiting, of preparation. We wait all year long for various milestones, both those natural and those declared.
A CHRISTMAS LULLABY (2010) for Dan Forrest [Hinshaw Music]
This little poem was commissioned by composer Dan Forrest to replace the text of his previously-published “Basque Lullaby” with a Christmas text. I have always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of the little baby and the future sacrifice he will make--in the words of a favorite Amy Grant song, “Fragile fingers sent to heal us,/ Tender brow prepared for thorn,/ Tiny heart whose blood will save us,/ Unto us is born!” Wow.
DREAMWEAVER (2012) for Ola Gjeilo [GIA/Walton Music]
The Norwegian poem "Draumkvedet" is a dense and enigmatic text, full of mysticism and puzzling images. My task was to render this poem in English in a way that makes sense as a choral work, but which maintains the flavor and integrity of the original. First I obtained a copy of the original text and a literal translation. Then I organized the images and "storyline" into a program which would work as a choral piece. What was my interpretation of the poem? How overtly religious did I want it to be? I chose to retain much of the original narrative religious content, but made more subtle the ending message. The next task was to choose a style. I wanted it to sound ancient, and vaguely Northern European, and ultimately I chose a variety of archaic styles. Readers might notice the opening word, "Listen!" reminiscent of the "Hwaet!" which begins Beowulf. The short, choppy stanzas which begin the dreamsong each end in a similar declarative statement. This I did to provide the composer with some internal structure, should he wish to use it. The next three stanzas mimic the Anglo-Saxon structure, with split lines, internal rhyming, etc. This style is more stately to my ears, and suited well the speaker's audience with the Holy Mother. These are very fussy to write, and so I limited myself to just this section. Next comes rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter, to bring the story faster and faster to the climactic confrontation. All through the text I have borrowed words and phrases from a variety of sources--scripture, Shakespeare, Tolkien--and maintained many images from the original text. The confrontation itself is given to a narrator. While writing this text I performed the narrator part for a performance of Britten's “The Company of Heaven" and was struck by the power and majesty of a spoken part above the music. These lines spoke to me in a narrator's voice (and also solved the problem of moving through a lot of territory briefly, rather than adding thirty minutes worth of text to perform!). Finally I returned to the original dreamsong motive and a return of the bard's voice at the end. This text presented unique challenges which spoke to many of my interests and experiences, as a historian, wordsmith, and Christian. Dreamweaver received its official premiere at Carnegie Hall by the Manhattan Concert Chorale in summer 2013.
ETERNAL PROMISE (2015) for Douglas Helvering [GIA Music]
This sonnet was commissioned by Westminster Choir College. Originally entitled simply "Love," this text moves through the twists and turns of love from infatuation to fulfillment to regret and boredom.
HEAVEN UNFOLDING (2009) for Andrea Ramsey [Boosey & Hawkes]
This poem was commissioned by the Allegro Children’s Choir of Kansas City, to be set by the great composer Andrea Ramsey. The children in the choir had been asked what Heaven on earth meant to them, I was given a long list of their wonderful responses, and wove them into the fabric of my poem. It was premiered in March 2010.
HER SACRED SPIRIT SOARS (2001) for Eric Whitacre [Shadow Water Music]
This poem was commissioned by Prof. Bob Demaree and The Heartland Festival in Platteville, Wisconsin, to commemorate the return of a beloved Shakespeare festival in a new incarnation. I chose an older form, in this case a Shakespearian sonnet, to hearken back to the past days of the festival, and as a reverent nod to the Bard himself. The poem reflects an Elizabethan’s confusion about artistic inspiration. The first quatrain recognizes that artists are indeed inspired; although, as the second quatrain observes, that inspiration does not flow freely through all artists. The third quatrain shows the confusion between traditional forms of inspiration, namely St. Cecelia and the classical Muses, and more tangible forms. In the case of this Elizabethan, his inspiration comes in the form of the person and patronage of Queen Elizabeth I herself, whose favorite epithet, Fair Oriana, is revealed in the first letters of each line. I deviated from the traditional form to add an extra-metrical fifteenth line, “Long Live Fair Oriana”–a device common among Elizabethan madrigal composers–although the poem would work without this addition.
HIMENAMI (2013) for Dan Forrest [Hinshaw Music]
This text was commissioned for the Tenjo-Hanabi choir in Osaka, Japan. They wanted a text which was evocative of the devastating 2011 tsunami but which did not become sappy or depressing. I chose a Japanese form, the tanka (5-7-5-7-7 syllables) with the structure broken apart in stanza three when the tsunami comes. The structure resolves in stanza four, symbolic of recovery. I was able to obtain a Japanese translation by Takako Helbig, and she brilliantly adhered to the tanka structure and the number of syllables in the broken stanza as well. Brava, Takako!
I AM (2015) for Jake Narverud [Schirmer]
A text made from the writings of high school students, when asked to identify who they were, and what their journey entailed. This is a song about identity and purpose and inspiration.
I WONDER... (2019) for various composers [MusicSpoke]
Thirteen short texts--some serious, some silly--on the theme "I wonder..." commissioned for thirteen different composers writing settings of two minutes or less. This one was really fun to write. The individual titles include: A Carol, Trees Breathing, Fridge, Intelligent Life, Incertitude, Lawn, Orange, Star Stuff, NYC, Tempests, Vampires, The Sea, Sleep.
LEONARDO DREAMS OF HIS FLYING MACHINE (2001) for Eric Whitacre [GIA/Walton Music]
This work was the result of a truly organic collaboration with composer Eric Whitacre. He was commissioned by the ACDA in 2002 to present a work for the 2002 national convention in San Antonio, and I was honored when he asked me to collaborate. Eric and I worked together on the concept for the piece, starting with the simple concept of a soundtrack for Leonardo’s dreams. I set to work researching everything Leonardo wrote about flight or flying, trying to find anything poetic. Eric wanted something narrative and sweeping. What emerged, after a lot of back and forth sharing of text and music, was the following text, a libretto bréve, and the rest is history. The work was premiered at the convention by the Kansas City Chorale directed by Charles Bruffy. Since then it has been performed and recorded all over the world. Check out this performance by the combined choirs of Lawrence High School and Free State High School of Lawrence, Kansas. In 2008 I was asked by Eric Whitacre to contribute a guest blog for his popular website, regarding the process of creating the text for Leonardo. Here is a link to what I wrote in the Blog Archive on Eric's site.
LIGHT and LOVE (2011) for Tobias Forster and Alwin Schronen [Schott Musik] and Santiago Veros
This is a text that bridges the gap between the concepts of light and love. This is a sonnet without the ending couplet. How do you think it should end?
LUMINOUS NIGHT OF THE SOUL (2012) for Ola Gjeilo [GIA/Walton Music]
I wrote this text for Ola Gjeilo as a companion piece for his DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL. He has added to the score a brief passage from St. John of the Cross to create a textual link with its companion piece. My text was created to fit the melodic material the composer shared with me.
LUX AURUMQUE (2000) for Eric Whitacre [GIA/Walton Music]
This poem is a translation into Latin of a lovely and simple text by poet Edward Esch. Eric Whitacre shared the poem with me, and I was instantly struck by its simple beauty. He wanted to set it, but in Latin, and so I set to work rendering the poem into the kinds of sounds Eric likes to set. There has been some confusion regarding the elusive poet Edward Esch. As far as I know, there is no substantive information on record about him. Some have said that Esch died long ago, while others claim they saw him introduced and congratulated at a 2005 choral concert given by maestro Weston Noble and the Luther College choir. Eric doesn’t remember where he got the poem. This work is one of the few Whitacre pieces performed in church settings, especially at Christmas time (along with the haunting and perfect When David Heard). Its image of angels singing to the newborn babe evokes that silent night in the stable.
NOX AURUMQUE (2010) for Eric Whitacre [Shadow Water Music]
NOX AURUMQUE was written for composer Eric Whitacre as a companion poem to LUX AURUMQUE. This piece was to be decidedly longer, and darker and presented me with unique challenges. The task of the lyricist is to provide for the composer a text which, on the one hand, gives the composer the material he or she needs to complete the piece, according to unique specifications; while on the other hand, could stand alone as a poem in its own right.
Writing the Latin text for NOX AURUMQUE was a singular challenge. First, Eric had already composed much of the musical material; several distinct melodic motifs were already formed and essential to the structure of the piece. Any text I composed had to fit within the parameters of that structure. Eric was very specific about the number of syllables in this line, the necessary word-painting in that line, etc. Second, Eric had strong ideas about the meaning of the text. He communicated impressionistic images of an angel, the emotions of that angel, and other evocative images, darker than usual for him. My text had to speak to those images in a meaningful way, consistent with Eric’s intentions for the piece. It has a distinctly different sound than earlier works, and I wanted my text to be darker, and as different. Third (and most challenging), the text had to flow effectively in Latin. The Latin had to communicate accurately the images Eric wished to evoke about this angel, all within the already-established framework of the piece. Latin affected the English, and English affected Latin, in a tug of war between meaning and grammar. It had to be singable, and employ the kind of vowels and consonants Eric likes to set. (We joked that not every word could end in the lovely and mysterious –um sound Eric likes so much—Latin grammar just doesn’t work that way, although I became intimately familiar with the many uses of the genitive plural!) And the Latin had to be correct—it had to conform to the rules of Latin grammar—to satisfy my need as a scholar. I had to settle at times for some Latin that strayed from what Cicero might have written, but which stayed certainly within the somewhat looser realm of Medieval usage. From my perspective as a poet, the Latin language is living, vibrant and malleable; I’m certainly not the first poet to take liberties with canonical rules (and there certainly are some liberties taken!). No doubt there will be quibblers who will question the choices I have made. I humbly ask these critics to consider the nodus triplex with which I was presented, and see this poem for what it is—lyrics to a choral work, not a sequel to the Aeneid!
OREAD FAREWELL (2007) for Dan Forrest [Hinshaw Music]
In the Spring of 2007 John Paul Johnson, the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Kansas, approached me with a commission to write a poem in collaboration with composer Dan Forrest which would become a farewell or encore standard for the KU choral program. After a discussion with the composer, I chose as a starting place the English folk song “Barbara Allen.” It seemed plaintive to me, and with a mood evocative of farewells. I chose to use its structure, meter and rhyme-scheme as a base for my poem. Influenced by this choice, the finished poem has the feeling of a folk song. I even toyed with more antiquated forms, like thee and thou, but rejected those in favor of a less formal, but still old-fashioned “ye,” which Dan liked. The KU Chamber Choir offered the World Premiere of “Oread Farewell” on Tuesday, October 16, at Corpus Christi Catholic Church (my home parish!!) in Lawrence, KS.
OVER HAVET (Across the Sea) (2010) for Dan Forrest [Hinshaw Music]
This poem was commissioned by Tracy Resseguie for Composer Dan Forrest, to commemorate the life of Tracy’s grandfather, Peter Mandius Nerland, who immigrated from Finnoy Island, Norway, to rural Iowa in 1899. I was asked to create a text honoring that voyage, for the composer Dan Forrest to set for mixed choir. In the process of writing this poem I researched Mr. Nerland’s history, studying immigration and census records. In my research I was able to see his WWI draft card, in which was indicated that his eyes were grey. I took that as a hook, and away I went. Along the way I learned a tiny bit or Norwegian, with the help of my friend Bjørn Fredrik Meyer in Oslo. Dan’s setting is magnificent. Listen here: www.danforrest.com. This piece has had quite a life! Maestro Resseguie prepared his choir for a tour of Norway in 2011. His plan was to visit the home village of his grandfather on Finnoy Island and perform the work there. Little did he know, the villagers were almost all related to him, and have kept the memory of their emigrated brother alive for over a century! It was a moving experience for all as he and his choir performed in the little village church. After a successful tour all over Norway, Resseguie returned to the US having gained special permission from the White House to perform Over Havet in the Great Hall of Ellis Island itself. NO ONE gets permission to do this! There, in the Great Hall, surrounded by hundreds of people, the choir sang these words, huddled under the shadow of Liberty. Wow.
THE RIVER'S LAMENT (2011) for Elens Kats-Chernin and The Kings Singers [Boosey & Hawkes]
This poem was commissioned by the incomparable Kings Singers. They had commissioned Uzbek-born Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin to write a new piece for their 2011 tour, and she had trouble finding an appropriate text. I happened to be in London hanging out with the King’s Singers during the Summer of 2010, and the gents asked me to supply a text for Elena. We spoke at length via email, then via Skype (there are a lot of hours between Lawrence, Kansas and Sydney, Australia!) and agreed on the theme of a river reflecting on the many ages of its life. She wanted a multi-movement text, one which takes the primeval river through its interaction with mankind, through a drought (which the Murray had been experiencing for some time) and ultimately through the return of rain. I supplied her with a preliminary text, which she used as a springboard of inspiration to write a fascinating, rhythmic, insanely complicated six-part work which used very little of my original text. MY job was then to remake the text to fit the new music she had composed. I cannot tell you how difficult and how rewarding that was! The King’s Singers premiered “The River’s Lament” on July 7, 2011, at Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London.
SAINT GEORGE AND THE DRAGON (2014) an oratorio for Timothy Powell [MusicSpoke]
The three characters in this little drama are the Princess Sabra, the dragon Ascalon, and the hero George. I strove to create distinct voices for the three characters, reflected in the different meters and rhyme schemes I used for each. For example, Ascalon is ancient and formal, and always speaks rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter. The youthful and sassy Sabra speaks in a jaunty sing-song. George begins the tale in prose; but as wisdom dawns within him, his speech changes to match the more formal styles of the others. This work was written for the Davidson Fine Arts Chorale and composer Timothy Powell. The Chorale gave a partial premiere at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, in New York, and then a premiere of the full piece in Augusta, in April, 2014.
SAINTE-CHAPELLE (2013) for Eric Whitacre [Shadow Water Music]
This text was commissioned by the composer Eric Whitacre for use in a work he wrote for the incomparable Tallis Scholars. The text is based loosely on the experience one has when standing inside the jewell-box space of Sainte-Chapelle--the petite Gothic masterpiece in the center of Paris. The windows soar up, and shine with unimaginable colors from all directions--golden yellow, lapis, vermillion, burgundy, and deep greens. LUX shines through these windows and is transformed into LUMEN which, when seen by the viewer, becomes ILLUMINATIO.
SEASONS (2016) for Ola Gjeilo [GIA/Walton Music]
This poem passes through the four seasons, written for a treble voice setting by Ola Gjeilo.
SLEEP (2001) for Eric Whitacre [GIA/Walton Music]
Sleep is perhaps the most popular of my collaborations with Eric Whitacre. Eric was commissioned by a woman in Texas to write a setting of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods in memory of her parents, who had died in an auto accident. Eric composed an exquisite piece of music, and premiered the work. Later, when seeking publication rights, the Frost estate denied him permission to use the poem until it moved into public domain in 2037. Faced with the possible death of the piece, Eric contacted me and asked me to replace the text with another poem, one which matched the structure, rhyme-scheme and vowel sounds of the original Frost text. Wow. Replacing one of the most beloved poems in the English language was a scary task, to say the least. I chose the title Sleep because Eric’s original setting had ended on a haunting meditation on the word “sleep”--”and miles to go before I sleep...”which was too beautiful to sacrifice. Another line, “both dark and deep” also simply had to remain in the text. While I was trying to come up with ideas for the piece, my son, then three years old, would not settle down for bed. That got me remembering what it was like to resist sleep as a child--all the games you play with yourself about monsters under the bed, or spooky shadows in the window, etc. and the idea for Sleep was born. I worked furiously, seized by the inspiration of the challenge, and gave Eric the finished poem the next morning! This work has become a standard part of the choral repertoire garnering performances and praise all over the world. The National Endowment for the Arts American Masterpieces Program includes this piece in its list of required repertoire for program concerts, calling it a significant work of American choral music, and among the best of [America's] cultural and artistic legacy.
STARS IN HEAVEN (2013) for Toby Young [Faber]
London-based composer Toby Young commissioned me to write this Christmas carol for the choir of New College, Oxford. I used as a model one of my favorite old carols, "There is no rose of such virtue," to which I added a longer Latin chorus. The chorus reads, "Little infinity, you will transform the world." I love the paradox of the Christ Child--the great God who created the universe, the Ancient of Days contained in the tiny and utterly helpless space of a human infant.
STELLA CLARA (2015) for Richard Waters [Hinshaw Music]
This fun text was commissioned by a consortium of choirs as a set of continuation verses of the familiar "Star light, star bright" nursery rhyme, translated into Latin. It truly was a Rubic's Cube of a puzzle to get both the Latin to work, and the English translation also to match the original rhyme.
TAKE THE TRAIN (2018) for Ivo Antognini
This is a carpe diem poem, encouraging each of us, when faced with the chaos and confusion of life, to make a choice and get on the train! It was commissioned by a consortium of choral ensembles.
THEN AND STILL (2016) for Susan LaBarr
Susan asked for a love poem, one that was perhaps more personal than anything I had written before. So I gave her this poignant look at my relationship with my late wife, Julie, who died in 2005. It speaks of love and loss, and the wisdom gained after all this time.
TONIGHT I DANCE ALONE (2017) for Mårten Jansson [Bärenreiter Verlag]
This poignant text tells the story of a man and his beloved wife through an entire lifetime together, in the vein of the opening sequence of the Pixar film UP.
TUNDRA (2011) for Ola Gjeilo [GIA/Walton Music]
This poem, set for women’s chorus and strings by composer Ola Gjeilo, was commissioned by a consortium of 22 organizations. It was performed by the Women’s Honor Choir at the 2011 ACDA National Convention in Chicago. Ola shared with me photographs of the stark and stunning landscape of the Hardangervidda National Park in Norway, near where he grew up. This spare poem is inspired by that glaciated and beautiful place.
#twitterlieder (2015) for James Eakin III [Galaxy/ECS]
Several years ago my best friend, the composer Eric Whitacre, dared me to use the Twitter format of 140 characters to write little prose poems. My quirk was that these poems had to be exactly 140 characters, no more or less. Eric promised to set some to music, but his career exploded and it never happened. Tim Seelig, director of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus read these little poems, loved them, and decided to take up the challenge of commissioning a cycle for his group, with the excellent Los Angeles-based composer James Eakin. Several of the gents in the choir work at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, so we were able to secure the rights to use the title Twitterlieder, and they loved the idea so much they created the hashtag #twitterlieder for us to use. We decided then to title the work using the hashtag as well! This work is a song cycle of fifteen tweets about the cycle of a person's life, in three acts (roughly Youth, Adulthood, Old Age), with each act ending in a sort-of Greek chorus commenting on that phase of life. For the premiere the SFGMC organized a funny and touching tableau for each tweet, acted out on the stage in front of the choir. It was hilarious, poignant, and very effective!
VIRGO, MATER, REGINA (2012) for Costas Dafnis [GIA/Walton Music]
I really enjoyed writing this text for the American composer Costas Dafnis. He wanted a text which would tie together the themes of the Marian concert in which it would be premiered. So I created this litany to Our Lady--as Virgin, as Mother, and as Queen.
VOCES LUCIS (2012) for Andrea Ramsey [Santa Barbara Music Publishing]
I seem write about light a lot. There is something wonderfully evocative about light, both for poets and composers. This particular text is a dialogue between the speaker, and the “voices of light” who inspire confidence.
THE WAY OF TRUST (2018) for Andrea Ramsey [MusicSpoke]
This text was commissioned by the Turtle Creek Chorale as part of a cycle of poetry about the concept of Peacemakers. “The Way of Trust” is a direct challenge to all of us. Being a peacemaker is not easy. Doing so forces us to challenge long-held prejudices and myths of what may once have been or what might yet be. The world changes around us, and unless we change along with it the new world will feel broken, threatening to consume us. If, however, we embrace that change and find the middle way, building bridges instead of walls, celebrating our connections and our shared humanity and ignoring differences that do not matter, then we will live in a more peaceful world.
A WINTER'S SPELL (2015) for Timothy C. Takach [Timothy C. Takach Publications]
The opening text for the cycle "The Longest Nights," which explores various aspects of winter.
WINTERTIDE (2016) for Ola Gjeilo [GIA/Walton Music]
Wintertide is a poem I wrote to replace an existing Norwegian folk text setting. The music spoke to me in the same way the silence of a snowfall speaks, and so the text I found in the music is a descriptions of that winter stillness.