Sonnets of Desire, Longing and Whimsy
Music by Stacy Garrop, Poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950)
Sonnets of Desire, Longing and Whimsy is the fourth set of a large song cycle Stacy Garrop is writing using sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay, the sonnets all being explorations of different aspects of love. Set to Garrop’s music, this poetry becomes dramatic and intensely emotional sound paintings. I had no idea what to expect when we started rehearsing for this concert. But I have been amazed at what happens when thoughtful, creative and accomplished composers combine their genius with wonderful poetry. The musical/poetic experience is riveting, especially so with this set of songs.
If you are interested in delving deeper into how a particular composer composes, Justin W. Durham has written a very long PhD dissertation on Garrop – see link below. It is a in-depth analysis of her composition process and the musical form of her work. She apparently does very comprehensive studies of the poetry, including graphing the “tension level” of the various poems. Then she develops the dramatic form, decides on pitches and rhythms for the words, and finally the harmony and meter. The result, at least in the poetry we are singing, is extremely powerful. The three works in this set reach out and grab you, each in its own way.
As you would expect, there is much information available on Millay. Millay was an extremely popular poet and “one of the most skillful writers of sonnets in the twentieth century, and also like Frost, she was able to combine modernist attitudes with traditional forms creating a unique American poetry”. (Poetry Foundation – see link below for writeup on Millay.) She also wrote plays, an opera libretto, lyric verse and did poetry translation. Her translation of Baudelaire’s poem is the one Sanford used to compose Invitation to a Voyage. She was also something of a controversial figure. Her powerful, expressive poetry was often written out of her own experience, particularly after relationships, both with men and with women, disintegrated.
The first song in the set, Now by This Moon, was published in “Fatal Interview”, (1931) a collection of love sonnets inspired by a relationship with George Dillon, who she met when she gave a poetry reading at the University of Chicago. Although the relationship did not last, the emotions were inspiration for a set of sonnets that “speaks the thoughts of a new age”.
The other two poems, Time does not bring relief and I Shall Forget You Presently are from earlier collections. Time is from “Renascence and Other Poems”, her first collection, published in 1917. This widely praised volume brought her much positive attention. I Shall Forget you Presently was published in 1920 in a volume entitled “A Few Figs from Thistles”, which should tell you something about the content. Apparently some reviewers and critics were not amused, and the poetry “provided the basis for the so-called “Millay legend” of madcap youth and rebellion” (Poetry Foundation article). Millay went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923.