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29 June 2018

One from the Folder: Weekly Repertoire Thoughts for Women's/Treble Choirs

by Shelbie L. Wahl-Fouts (ChoralNet)

Week 15: Friday, June 29, 2018

“Leave My Heart Its Songs” by Dominick DiOrio
Poetry by Amy Lowell

SSA, piano, two violins, viola

This selection for three-part women’s/treble chorus, piano, and upper strings is a beautiful combination of Dominick DiOrio’s lush musical setting and Amy Lowell’s passionate text.

The text is from the poem “To A Friend” by Amy Lowell (1874-1925), first published in 1912 as part of her collection A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass. (Project Gutenberg has produced an ebook of this collection, available here.) The poem centers on the changing tides of friendship, love, and relationships, evoking emotions from fear to joy. Lowell was a New Englander and an outspoken leader of the Imagist movement in American poetry.

      I ask but one thing of you, only one,
       That always you will be my dream of you;
       That never shall I wake to find untrue
      All this I have believed and rested on,
      Forever vanished, like a vision gone
       Out into the night.  Alas, how few
       There are who strike in us a chord we knew
      Existed, but so seldom heard its tone
       We tremble at the half-forgotten sound.
      The world is full of rude awakenings
       And heaven-born castles shattered to the ground,
      Yet still our human longing vainly clings
       To a belief in beauty through all wrongs.
       O stay your hand, and leave my heart its songs!

Frequent contrasts of texture and style, formed around the text, create ample excitement in DiOrio’s musical setting. For some phrases, you can taste the vowels, luxuriating in the smoothness and beauty of the sounds. In others, the focused declamatory statements of the text, with spirited rhythms and crisp consonants, evoke the passion and fire of the words. I have programmed this piece for my university students and for high school honors ensembles. Each time I did, the choirs have been enamored with the contrast between sections and the quickly changing emotions of the work.

From a teaching perspective, some sections will likely be sight-readable, with diatonic harmony and simple rhythms. Other areas are chromatic or have more complex rhythms and will need dedicated time in rehearsal. Dynamics play a huge role in this piece and will need lots of attention, especially noting the small nuance within a measure as compared to the larger arc of a given phrase. Diction is a factor as well – being able to shift quickly between flowing vowel-focused lines and declamatory consonant-focused ones.

Given the clear connections to the text, the best way to study this musical setting is to look at each line or phrase of the poem:

“Leave my heart its songs! O stay your hand, and leave my heart its songs!”
The piece begins dramatically, utilizing the closing line of the poem as the title-phrase and opening statement. With a wide range of quick dynamic shifts, full accompaniment with piano and strings, and chromatic movement from the voices, it is a striking beginning to the work.

“I ask but one thing of you, only one, that always you will be my dream of you;”
The demonstrative opening transitions to a smoother, lyrical section, in which the voices are supported only by the piano. This begins in unison, then branches out into diatonic harmonies. Singers can read these rhythms at sight (quarter notes and half notes) and use solfege (pitches are all within the Bb major scale). Vocal lines are long and flowing, with soft dynamics.

“That never shall I wake to find untrue all this I have believed and rested on, forever vanished like a vision gone out into the night”
The style shifts here to declamatory text in a quicker tempo and rhythmic pattern. Strings rejoin, accented, supporting the pitches of the voices. Dynamics move from to subito p and back to f, with small adjustments each measure. The buildup leads to the word “vision,” and the phrase ends with a reappearance of strong chromatic movement. 

One word is the focus here. Each presentation of the word has its own dynamic ebb and flow, and becomes faster measure by measure. My students loved to sink their teeth into the contrasting seconds and thirds of the harmonies here, and to lean into the hairpin dynamic emphases. In just six measures, the intensity builds significantly, moving from p mm=52 to f mm=88. 

“Alas, how few there are who strike in us a chord we knew existed”
The strength of the previous six measures unfolds into a pronounced ff, with the rhythms now defined by the text. Instruments are scarce here – punctuating during rests, but otherwise letting the voices and the text speak freely. Altos divide in this section, adding another layer to the choral harmonies. 

“but so seldom heard its tone. I ask but one thing of you, only one, We tremble at the half forgotten sound”
This is the only imitative section of the work, though still returning to lyrical lines, simpler rhythms, and diatonic harmony. In a song that is primarily homophonic, this departure from the prevailing choral texture creates a hauntingly beautiful moment, as the phrases overlap and float through the performance space. 

“The world is full of rude awak’nings and heav’n born castles shatter’d to the ground”
“Yet still our human longing vainly clings”
“to a belief in beauty through all wrongs”

These three phrases come in quick succession, each with a different presentation. First, the sonorous moment of the earlier imitative section is broken by a rhythmic declamatory entrance, complete with accents and a sfz fermata. Then it is a smooth mp line of diatonic quarter notes in stepwise motion. Next, it is a chromatic phrase, in unison.

“Leave my heart its songs! O Stay your hand, and leave my heart its songs.”
The unison chromatic line leads into this final line of the poem, set with a recapitulation of both the text and the musical setting as was used to open the piece. For the “O Stay…” text this time though, an additional upper harmony line for one solo soprano has been added and the accompaniment drops out. This produces a brilliant shimmering moment that you and your singers will want to savor again and again. DiOrio’s setting closes with one more unison repetition of the title phrase, ending nienteand fading off into the distance.

Title: Leave My Heart Its Songs
Composer: Dominick DiOrio
Date of Composition: 2014
Text Source/Author: Amy Lowell (1874-1925)
Date of Text: 1912
Subject(s), Genre: Friendship, Love, Relationships, Passion
Language: English
Listed Voicing: SSA
Voicing Details: SSA, some divisi in Alto line
Ranges: S1: D4-Ab5 (Bb5)
S2: C4-E5
A: A3-Eb5
Accompaniment: Piano, two violins, viola
(Given the chromatic nature and the shifting styles, the three string parts require accomplished players with strong rhythm accuracy and exceptional intonation.)
Duration: ~6:00
Tempo: MM=52-92
Commissioning Ensemble: Smith College Chorus, Joseph Baldwin, conductor
Series: Dale Warland Choral Series
Publisher: G. Schirmer
Further descriptions and details, including program notes, audio, perusal score, and purchasing:

Until next week!
-Shelbie Wahl-Fouts