#39: Friday, December 28, 2018
“Look Down, Fair Moon” by Mari Esabel Valverde
Text by Walt Whitman
SSA div, piano
This hauntingly-beautiful work by composer Mari Esabel Valverde offers a contemplative (and accessible!) take on Whitman’s elegy for the fallen. It is ideal for concerts focusing on reflection, reconciliation, war/peace, and the social costs of violence.
Written as a commission for the 2015 Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) Region 2 All-District Treble Choir conducted by Cheryl Wilson, this is an excellent selection for any regional or district honor festival. It is also well-suited to a larger intermediate ensemble or a small-but-mighty advanced group.
A note on the voicing: The score is labeled SSA, but the piece reads primarily as two-part with divisi. Some sections are two-part (SA), while some have soprano divisi (SSA), alto divisi (SAA), or both (SSAA). If your ensemble is adept at switching from 2part to 3part to 4part within a song, you could have a set of students write arrows in their music and sing many of the middle notes, regardless of part assignment.
Conversely, you can approach the piece as 2part, having each voice divide evenly to accommodate the divisi as needed. This would be my preferred approach, especially for a festival choir since it is helpful to make clean, clear part assignments when singers are learning the music on their own.
Valverde’s flowing setting is in simple meter, moving fluidly through 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 3/2. Rhythms are limited to quarter note, half note, eighth note, and ties/dots, and likely are sight-readable by most ensembles once they adjust to the multiple meter signatures (quarter note stays constant).
Tonally, the piece centers around E major, with only a few pitches outside that diatonic framework (one measure each with B♯s, E♯s, and C♮s). If learning with solfege, I would focus on those few measures first, to solidify the intervals with si, di, and le. Once those are comfortable, the rest of the pitches will fall into place, supportively (but not overbearingly) assisted by the piano. There are clean diatonic triads, alongside soaring lines that move through pleasantly-crunchy dissonances. Singers and audience members alike will each find phrases and chords that resonate with them.
In terms of form, the song is ABA’, with the opening material (Whitman’s first line) coming back with slight adaptations to close the piece. Conscientious ensemble members will likely notice the small differences, but for others, it will be important to point out the minor adjustments from opening A to closing A’, so that both versions are accurate.
The Whitman text is at once calming and jarring*.
Look down, fair moon, and bathe this scene,
Pour softly down night’s nimbus floods on faces ghastly, swollen, purple,
On the dead, on their backs, with arms toss’d wide,
Pour down your unstinted nimbus, sacred moon.
—Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass
The first line could be from a light-hearted piece about the moon or the night, but the focus quickly shifts to what the moon is illuminating: the very real consequences of war and injustice, and those who have paid the ultimate price in the violence of this world. The moon draws attention to these consequences by bringing them out of the shadows, while the night’s rains attempt to cleanse the hardships and woe from the world.
The composer makes the following comments in her score. I am particularly moved by her last two sentences:
Here is a nocturne inspired by poetry contemporary with the American Civil War. In a prayerful tone and imperative tense, Whitman pleads for calm and healing for those who are wounded or fallen. …The mysterious, beaming moon is our source of spiritual nourishment.
Every time we are made aware of the unspeakable carnage of war or terrorism, foreign or domestic, we are compelled to ponder our humanity and our mortality. In the spirit of such elegy, I want to inspire further introspection and call for the reconciliation and mending of our people.
—Mari Valverde, notes in the score
*(Consider your area when programming: for younger singers, or for communities just recently touched directly by violence, the imagery of “ghastly swollen purple faces” may be too visceral and real. Or, it may be appropriate catharsis. You know your singers and audience best.)
I am grateful to Mari for this piece, and particularly for its depth of text and musical interest, while also being accessible to groups of varying sizes or levels. It connects our singers and audience to such important human emotions – compassion, empathy, sorrow, grief – all while reminding us there is solace and peace, grace and beauty, to be found in the struggle as well.
|Title:||Look Down, Fair Moon|
|Composer:||Mari Esabel Valverde |
|Date of Composition:||2015|
|Author:||Walt Whitman (from Leaves of Grass)|
|Date of Text:||1867|
|Subject(s), Genre:||Reconciliation, memory, grief, violence, war, strife|
|Listed Voicing:||SSA w div|
|Voicing Details:||Sections of SA, SSA, and SSAA. Can approach as 2part SA div, or as 3part SSA with div in altos. Depends on your ensemble.|
|Tempo:||MM=63; Soothingly, larghetto|
|Commissioning Ensemble:||Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) Region 2 All-District Treble Choir 2015, Denton, Texas, conducted by Cheryl Wilson|
Further descriptions and details, including program notes, audio, perusal score, and purchasing:
Until next week!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is associate professor of music, Director of Choral Activities, and music department chair at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.