Week 30: Friday, October 12, 2018
“To Make A Prairie” by Elizabeth Alexander
Text by Emily Dickinson
Determination. Mindfulness. Fortitude. Strength. Resilience. These ideas and more come to the surface when Elizabeth Alexander’s stirring music and Emily Dickinson’s inspirational text are paired together for this selection.
Superficially, Dickinson’s text is about bees, clover, and prairies. If you read closer though, the deeper meaning focuses on seeking your dreams, overcoming obstacles, and believing in yourself. We have the tools to pursue our goals and write our own stories, even if we doubt ourselves. What better topics to explore with our singers? The poem is only five lines long but can be profoundly impactful. Alexander’s musical setting is equally influential, creating an ethereal dream-like state through chromaticism and legato lines.
There is no marked key – accidentals are ubiquitous in both the voices and the accompaniment. However, doubling and octaves within the vocal lines will give the ensemble confidence. The right hand of the piano accompaniment also doubles or otherwise supports the voices. Because of this design, the composer has created an opportunity to successfully introduce chromaticism to choirs that may be unfamiliar or hesitant.
As someone who has accompanied her fair share of choirs and soloists, I appreciate a great piano part when I see one. While the right hand in this piece is mostly supporting the vocal lines, the left hand is nearly its own entity. It includes syncopation, arpeggios, dissonances, and a tonality that leans towards jazz. Rhythmically and harmonically, the piano adds a unique character and style to the piece, in addition to supporting the choir.
The voices begin in unison or in octaves. This unity underscores the singular nature of the text: a prairie, a clover, one bee. True vocal harmony begins on the word “reverie.” At this point, the harmony consists of mainly 3rds and 6ths. Even through the chromaticism, the vocal parts are connected in a way that makes the lines feel comfortable and stable.
Vocal ranges are no wider than a 9th. Within that range, much of the linear motion is step-wise. Even when in harmony, the voice lines move together; there is no polyphony or imitation. Thus, entrances, phrasing, and diction are all done as a full ensemble, even within SSA harmony. All of these points help make this piece very singable for a wide array of skill levels.
The meter alternates between 2/2 and 3/2, but the rhythms themselves are not overly complicated. Expression markings do not ask for anything out of the ordinary [pp, p, mf, rallentando, dolce, etc.], and expressly support the text and motion of the piece. This selection could be great for introducing or reinforcing 3/2 and 2/2 meters, and for practicing a more intense communication of text expression and mood.
There is one brief solo near the end of the work, over an unmeasured fermata in the piano. The range is small and the line is unassuming, but it is important to note that there is no metrical pulse or piano doubling to assist. One voice (alone) presents the crux of the poem – “the reverie alone will do.” If the bees and the clover aren’t enough to make the prairie come to life, literally or figuratively, the reverie can still be enough. We can still be enough. It is a moving moment, especially as the rest of the choir rejoins to close the piece. [From a practical perspective, the soloist needs a solid ear, a floating tone, and the wherewithal to sing an exposed line without getting flustered.]
I programmed this piece with my intermediate-level ensemble a few years back, as part of a concert titled “Stories, Songs, and Dreams.” The students in that ensemble were all in majors other than music; many were studying creative writing, psychology, or theatre. They enjoyed the chance to dig deeper into the meaning of Dickinson’s text, and to draw parallels to the prairie in their own lives. Alexander’s setting was intricate and intimate, and very interesting to them. It was unlike most repertoire they had sung previously, yet it was still accessible and attainable. I have fond memories of that particular rehearsal sequence, and of how much the students grew musically and personally along the way.
|Title:||To Make A Prairie|
|Date of Composition:||1998|
|Date of Text:||1755|
|Subject(s), Genre:||Nature; Secular; Dreams; Future goals; Strength|
|Voicing Details:||Unison, SA, SSA|
|Publisher:||Seafarer Press SEA-016-00|
|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.
Some source material for this week’s blog post was taken from my doctoral dissertation, “By Women, For Women: Choral Works for Women’s Voices Composed and Texted by Women.” https://tinyurl.com/ydeyuyk8