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American Poetry as Cantata: Turning the Words of Dickinson, Hughes and Glück into Song

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We are always excited to welcome composers to the Music Division as it not only affords us the opportunity to connect with new faces and perspectives in the music world, but also allows us the opportunity to appreciate how their activities are an extension of the legacies preserved here in the Library’s collections. This Friday, the Music Division is hosting a noontime lecture in the Whittall Pavilion by American composer Elena Ruehr, who will discuss her working process in transforming three poems into large scale musical works: Louise Glück’s Averno, Langston Hughes’s Gospel Cha Cha, and Emily Dickinson’s Cricket, Spider, Bee.

The text for Ruehr’s cantata Averno comes from Louise Glück’s Averno, which was a national book award finalist in poetry and deals with the subject of “human’s relationship to the natural world” using the myth of Persephone and Demeter as its starting point (interesting note: Glück served as the Library’s Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry from 2003-2004). Gospel Cha Cha is based on the famous text of Langston Hughes, telling the story of Africans in the Americas. Composed by Ruehr for her close collaborator of many years, Baritone Stephen Salters, Gospel Cha Cha is “A tightly linked chain of musical episodes, each more riveting than the last” (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2001); this cantata informed Ruehr’s acclaimed opera Toussaint Before the Spirits. Finally, Ruehr’s Cricket, Spider, Bee, with text by Emily Dickinson, explores the relationship of humans to the earth from the perspective of an early American poet.

On April 3, The Washington Chorus will be performing all three of these works, premiering the cantata Averno and giving the second performance of Gospel Cha Cha. A limited number of free tickets to The Washington Chorus performance will be distributed to lecture attendees on a first come, first served basis. Stay tuned for further blog posts as more composers come to visit the Music Division over the next few months!

Comments (6)

  1. I would love to hear these for my own personal inspiration, but I would also love to use them in the classroom. Will they be recorded in the near future?

    • Hi, Maura — thanks for asking! I contacted Elena Ruehr and she informed me that she’s hopeful the pieces will be recorded this May at Trinity Church in NYC (depending on funds). If that plan follows through, then a recording should be available in the fall!

  2. its hard for a lyricist to break into the music bussiness. although i have 3 books of poetry and song lyrics registered with the library its been a struggle to get them noticed. i have so much to learn and do.
    and being disabled hasnt helped. i love writting and i even play a little rythum now and then;awe maybe soon
    God bless all the artists who inspire and keep people like me going.

    peace, love, joy;

  3. Thank you Cait, for this article.

    We receive many such requests from our readers to set poetry to music. We just haven’t gotten around to it.

    Is there a video available for this lecture?

    Alan Loren
    Chief Editor
    My Word Wizard

    • Thanks, Alan — unfortunately this lecture was not recorded for the Library of Congress website.

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