Three Poems of Denise Levertov
for soprano and chamber orchestra
Tenebrae is a setting of three poems by the American poet and anti-war activist Denise Levertov (1923 – 1997). Although Levertov’s specific impulse for writing these poems was the Vietnam War, the broad point of view she offers in describing the reality of everyday existence within volatile times of conflict carries a resonance, sadly, to this day.
In the first poem, “Tenebrae”, a slow-unfolding ostinato pattern threads through tense, weaving threads of musical line as the sung melody navigates among various scenes of civilian livelihood under the shadow of warfare. The music is cast in a weighted, labored character to illustrate a feeling of the “heavy hand and heart” which the soprano declares at the outset of the work. The physical feeling of this existence is examined in the second poem, “Life at War”. Here, pangs of inner sensations, both mental and physiological, are musically amplified by aggressive, dissonant gestures exchanged between voice and ensemble. Unrelenting and disturbing in its imagery, the vocal line moves between disjunct, angular responses to unthinkable violence and lyrical, pining appeals to goodness and beauty. A massive instrumental climax leads to a sense of hopeless resignation and exhaustion. “Making Peace”, the third setting, arises from this dark, destructive place with an immediate call for peace via the creative act. This opening plea from the soprano recalls the a cappella opening of the first movement; likewise, this movement begins with a slow, pacing, tentative forward motion. Yet, gradually this music gains an affirmative impulse as the sung melody evinces a growing inspiration, culminating in a grandiose, tonal arrival, free of the tension that has pervaded the music to this point. The work concludes with an optimistic (but brief and slightly tentative) coda of gently descending arpeggios.The three movements are performed without pause between.
Tenebrae is written for and dedicated to soprano Hillary LaBonte, with gratitude for her fearless artistry and boundless enthusiasm and trust in this collaborative process. LaBonte gave the premiere performance with the Bowling Green New Music Ensemble, under the direction of Christopher Dietz, on 1 March 2018 at Bowling Green University in Ohio.
©2022 Sean Doyle. All rights reserved.