Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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Voices of 1918 Program Notes
Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s “Made in Vermont Music Festival.”
Performed at ten locations September & October 2000

Kyrie: poems, by Ellen Bryant Voigt
   W.W. Norton & Company, 1995

When I received the commission from the Vermont Symphony Orchestra to write a work for the “Made in Vermont” music series, I was very excited to know that one of the requirements of the commission was to work with the Vermont Poet Laureate, Ellen Bryant Voigt. She provided me with many excellent poems to review for the project, but I was most attracted to her work Kyrie. I read the short but dramatic poems that made up the book several times, finding new and interesting connections each time. Though its overall subject matter—the influenza epidemic of 1918—is severely tragic, several of the voices within the work spoke of hopes and dreams that are moving and universal. We must all deal with tragedy in our lives, though in different ways, but the hope we need to overcome tragedy is a universal need. It is the great poet that can reach each of us regardless of our own conflicts and situations and give us new insight on our condition. Ellen is one of those poets.

When I first read Ellen’s work I had never heard of the tragedy of 1918, and this came to me as quite a surprise. I wondered, how is it that so little is known of this horrendous event? Why do so few people know about it? It seemed to me to be a story worth telling and a story worth knowing. I thought it was also a story worth putting to music. The power of music to enhance the drama and emotional content of a story is well known, and I welcomed the chance to bring musical emphasis to this story.

The music was required to be scored for two oboes, one bassoon, two horns, and strings. At first, the challenge of putting a wide array of deep emotion within the context of such a small orchestra—in modern terms, anyway—seemed daunting, but I decided on a particular formula. I chose three main voices within the text of the poetry and decided that the winds would perform various themes according to the particular voices while the strings would carry the rest of the motion. The oboes play a melancholic theme in the voice of someone who looks back to 1918 to recall what it was like. The horns play a march-like theme portraying the voice of a soldier who went to war just as the influenza epidemic was breaking out both in Europe and the United States. The bassoon plays the theme representing the voices of those who were at home during the war trying desperately to survive and understand the terrible epidemic. Not to be relegated to just the background, however, the strings also play a short theme of irony as a text similar to a children’s nursery rhyme describes the horror of that time.

When asked in what style do I write, I am always at a loss for words. In the strict sense of the word you may call me a modern romantic in that I use modern techniques of chord building and development, and I use various modern rhythmic techniques, but I also look back with reverence to those composers who were masters of melodic writing and thematic unity. To me, however, the style of writing is secondary to the main purpose of my work, which is to bring about an emotional and moving experience of an engaging idea or story in my own way. This is the purpose of all my work, and it is no less so for this endeavor. I hope you will find it to be moving and that you enjoy the performance!  

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