Tawnie Olson’s thoughts on composing her first song cycle

Lawrence WilifordCASP Commissions0 Comments

My first encounter with art song, and song cycles, was in high school. I was taking music history lessons to prepare for an RCM exam, and our textbook included “Ich grolle nicht,” from Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Although classically-trained voices still sounded alien to me at that time, something about the piece made me want to get to know it better. I sat down and played the piano part (which felt and sounded wonderful under the fingers), and read the words: lovely, angsty break-up lyrics that appealed immediately to my teenaged sensibilities. As I saw how perfectly the music expressed the text’s emotions, and felt how fun that piano part was to play, I began to fall in love.


As I developed as a composer, however, I didn’t write very many art songs. I was lucky enough to have commissions and requests to write music in many other genres, but received very few art song commissions. When Steven and Lance asked me to write a song cycle for the winner of the 2016-2017 Jeunesses Musicales Maureen Forrester Tour (soprano Magali Simard-Galdès), therefore, I jumped at the chance.


The parameters of the commission were clear: the piece needed to support CASP’s mission to create a repertoire of Canadian art song that could be adopted by singers who aren’t new music specialists (as well as those who are). The total duration needed to be between ten and fifteen minutes, to fit Magali’s recital programme, and I needed to choose Canadian texts. I didn’t have to think long or hard about whose poetry I would set; I’d wanted to work with Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s poems for years, ever since I read her Lost Gospels (Brick Books, 2010).


I love a lot of things about Lorri’s works: her unflinching, unsentimental confrontation with mortality, her playful approach to structure, the alchemy by which she transforms mundane objects and activities into opportunities to contemplate what it means to be human. It took several months of reading and pondering, but eventually I winnowed down the poems that spoke to me to the three that made it into the cycle: Dusk, Hubbards Cove, and Daybreak.


Each of these poems, in its own way, expresses what it’s like to be a mortal being who exists in time. Dusk and Daybreak each present a different kind of looking back, and Hubbards Cove is about a kind of joyful being-in-the-moment. The cycle as a whole moves backward temporally, from sunset to mid-day to dawn. In each song I attempted to capture the emotions the poem evokes in me, and I couldn’t resist using sound to suggest images from each poem, too: birdsong and the irregular whir of a sewing machine in Dusk, dripping icicles in Hubbards Cove, the sun rising and cumulonimbus blooming in Daybreak. The three movements share a common musical language. Dusk and Daybreak, which are most closely related in terms of their extramusical ideas, are most closely related in their structure, too. Both move through the same sequence of hexachords (that is, collections of six pitches), which are transposed so that the end of Daybreak returns, finally, to the pitch center used at Dusk’s opening.


Composing this piece was meaningful in ways I find difficult to put into words; in part, I think, because I put what I most wanted to say into the music itself. It was thrilling finally to write a song cycle of my own. It was fun to write music that would allow Magali to show the audience her incredible musicality and lovely voice, and Olivier Hébert-Bouchard, her pianist, to show off his virtuosity, too. Most of all, it was deeply rewarding to get to share my love of these poems and what they have to say. All through the music I am saying to the listener: look at this! Isn’t this beautiful? Isn’t this profound?

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