Finding Music in the Life and Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay


I first became aware of the work of Edna Saint-Vincent Millay after composer Alison Willis put one of her poems (“The Harpist’s Ballad”) to Juice vocal ensemble, a group that I co-founded with my fellow singers and songwriters, Kerry Andrew and Anna Snow. The collection from which this poem is taken won the Millay Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 and helped solidify his flourishing career, not only as a poet, but also as a playwright and short story writer, receiving mass recognition under the pseudonym. , Nancy Boyd.

Millay studied piano and theater from an early age and made his first appearances on stage performing his poetry and playing the piano. In 1927, she wrote the libretto for an opera, with music composed by Deems Taylor. It was Millay who decided on the subject of the opera, choosing an English medieval legend, eager to explore the Anglo-Saxon roots of American settlers. The king’s henchman premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on February 17, 1927 to critical acclaim. This in itself seems a particularly striking achievement given the lack of opportunities for female creatives by the same institution not only during Millay’s lifetime, but also in the 21st century: The Metropolitan Opera commissioned its very first operas from female composers, Mizzy. Massoli. and Jeanine Tesori, as recently as 2018.

Edna’s poetic writing style was quite formal in that she followed the form, rhyme, and measure of traditional sonnets. However, she harnessed the strength of this tradition and used it as a scaffold on which to explore and challenge societal perceptions of women, feminism, and sexuality. It was while researching his poetry that I came across his letters. In the book, unfortunately out of print, Letters from Edna St. Vincent Millay, you can read all about his love of music, his thoughts on politics and sexuality, and his relationships. His literary genius has always been rather overshadowed by the stories of his “risky” personal life, but rather than stage his poems, I found myself drawn to the content of these letters, whose writing style was much more modern and less rhythmic. .

Choosing a suitable text for setting to music can be a long and exciting process, often reflecting internal and external influences. When looking for a text to put in place for my new choral work, Love letter, I have been angered by the increasingly negative anti-LBGT agenda in the United States, the rise of the far right around the world, and the news from many countries that are backtracking on human rights issues. women and equality. Due to the pandemic, there are now certainly even more political and socio-economic parallels between what was happening during Edna’s lifetime and what is happening now, and during that time I have found the beauty succinct and the honesty of his incredibly heartwarming letters.

A paragraph from her letter to her lover Arthur Ficke really appealed to me:

“It doesn’t matter who you fall in love with, how often, or how gently. It has nothing to do with who we are to each other, nothing to do with You and Me.

Musically, I wanted to match the simplicity and clarity of this text. I didn’t want to stand in the way, just to make it feel natural, uplifting, and joyful. The world of choral music is such a rich tradition and brings together communities of people, and yet sometimes the texts we sing about love are limited to those with religious significance. My hope is that the freedom Edna so enjoyed and celebrated in her life resonates with others and provides a moment to recognize the importance of acceptance and equality in love and relationships in modern life. .

As Olivia Gatwood observes: “Much of Millay’s work realizes that we have no choice which world we will find ourselves in, and because of that, we have no choice but to make it our own.”

Image credits: Edna St. Vincent Millay in Mamaroneck NY, 1914, by Arnold Genthe. (Genthe Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

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