Eric Whitacre: Sleep
Composed in 2000 and premiered in 2001, Eric Whitacre’s popular choral work Sleep came from a very personal commission request. In 1999, Whitacre was approached by Julia Armstrong, a mezzo-soprano living in Texas. She proposed a commission for a new work from Whitacre to be performed by the Austin ProChorus, where she was an avid member. The details around the commission stuck with the composer, as Julia wanted a piece in memory of her parents, both of whom had died within weeks of each other after more than 50 years of marriage. She proposed Robert Frosts’ beautiful poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, a poem that meant a lot to both her and the choir.
Whitacre accepted the commission and began working on the music:
“I took my time with the piece, crafting it note by note until I felt that it was exactly the way I wanted it. The poem is perfect, truly a gem, and my general approach was to try to get out the way of the words and let them work their magic.”
The new choral work premiered in Austin in October 2000. The piece received positive reviews which led to the composer receiving letters, emails and phone calls from conductors trying to get a copy of the work for their choirs. However, Whitacre was faced with a bump in the road:
“Here was my tragic mistake: I never secured permission to use the poem. Robert Frost’s poetry has been under tight control from his estate since his death, and until a few years ago only Randall Thompson had been given permission to set his poetry. In 1997, out of the blue, the estate released a number of titles, and at least twenty composers set and published Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening for chorus.
When I looked online and saw all of these new and different settings, I naturally (and naively) assumed that it was open to anyone. Little did I know that the Robert Frost Estate had shut down ANY use of the poem just months before, ostensibly because of this plethora of new settings. After a long legal battle, the estate of Robert Frost and their publisher sternly and formally forbid me from using the poem for publication or performance until the poem became public domain in 2038.”
This posed many further problems for Whitacre as the work could not only be published, but even performed. As it stood at the time, he would have had to wait nearly 37 years until the poem could be used due to these strict rules. Not wanting to let this commission fall to nothing, Whitacre decided to ask friend and poem Charles Anthony Silvestri to set new words to the music that Whitacre had already written:
“This was an enormous task, because I was asking him to not only write a poem that had the exact structure of the Frost, but that would even incorporate keywords from ‘stopping’ to ‘sleep’. Anthony wrote an absolutely exquisite poem, finding a completely different (but equally beautiful) message in the music I had already written. I actually prefer Anthony’s now!”
The evening hangs beneath the moon,
A silver thread on darkened dune.
With closing eyes and resting head
I know that sleep is coming soon.
Upon my pillow, safe in bed,
A thousand pictures fill my head.
I cannot sleep, my mind’s a-flight;
And yet my limbs seem made of lead.
If there are noises in the night,
A frightening shadow, flickering light,
Then I surrender unto sleep,
Where clouds of dream give second sight,
What dreams may come, both dark and deep,
Of flying wings and soaring leap
As I surrender unto sleep,
As I surrender unto sleep.
Littered with cluster chords throughout (chords that are made up of close tones that create shimmering dissonance), Sleep is a quintessential Eric Whitacre work. Structured as an eight-part piece (SSAATTBB) the voices intertwine throughout, creating feelings of unison and togetherness. The voices mainly sing syllabically with crotchet movement, which highlights Whitacre’s want for showcasing the words of the poem.
Silvestri’s poem is rather interesting as there are four lines per stanza, with lines 1, 2 and 4 rhyming on the last word. The third line does not rhyme until the fourth and final stanza, where the word ‘sleep’ is repeated. The voices create a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere, representing the feelings and sensations of drifting off to sleep. The music begins to build up to a climax in the third stanza, before the music slowly begins to drift off as the voice ‘surrender unto sleep’.
This acapella choral work underpins a lot of Whitacre’s style. Sleep was used as part of Whitacre’s ‘Virtual Choir’ project, which saw thousands of people from all over the world join in singing this beautiful work.
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