Nancy Galbraith: Sonnet 116
Commissioned by David Keller and Julie Meyers
as a 25th wedding anniversary celebration
Text and backstory
William Shakespeare | Sonnet 116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
It may be the perfect wedding verse: universal in its appeal, stunningly beautiful in its language and imagery, profound in its ideas, elusive in its meaning.
And often blunt in its observations. The physical beauty of young love — those “rosy lips and cheeks” — will be gone soon enough, Shakespeare observes, whacked by Time’s bending sickle. Yet love itself is not bounded by Time’s “brief hours and weeks” but will survive “even to the edge of doom.”
David Keller and Julie Meyers found Sonnet 116 for themselves in 1985 as they searched for a wedding text. They needed something that would not admit impediments when two families met to celebrate this marriage of true minds.
“I went out and bought a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets — finally, after all those years, I got to read the Shakespeare sonnets — and found this one,” David said. “We thought it would work well for our ceremony.”
“It was a beautiful ceremony for both our families,” Julie said. “We were married by a justice of the peace, my uncle’s barber.”
Her brother read the sonnet at the ceremony.
Twenty years later, Sonnet 116 was still in the picture. Love had indeed remained an ever-fixed mark. But something new had arrived: choral music. Their son Josh had taken the first plunge, signing up with the inaugural class of the Junior Providence Singers. He loved singing and his parents enjoyed the JPS performances — and it wasn’t long before David began thinking about joining the Providence Singers.
“I remember Josh’s first concert in Sayles Hall,” Julie said. “Robert Page was conducting them, and he seemed to be awfully hard on the kids in the warmup. I checked in with Josh, but he raved about Mr. Page and said he was loving every minute of it. They sang music from Candide. I still cry when I hear Make Our Garden Grow. David was in the audience thinking, ‘If I sang with the Providence Singers, I could sing with Josh at least once a year.’ So he auditioned for the next season and joined the tenor section.”
Choral music took hold: David in the Singers, Josh in the Junior Singers, Julie ushering and getting thoroughly immersed in the music before each performance. Then came the Singers’ 2007 “American Masterpieces” choral festival, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. It featured three world premières, including Nancy Galbraith’s Two Emily Dickinson Songs.
“We heard the premières. We talked with people who had actually commissioned a composition, and we had a text — Sonnet 116 — that had no copyright problems,” David said. “We thought, ‘Yes, commissioning is something we could do. It would be a lot of fun.’ Those two Dickinson poems really struck me. I really liked Nancy’s arrangements. We thought she’d be a good one to ask to write a piece to commemorate our twenty-fifth anniversary.”
So by the summer of 2007, the parts for an anniversary commission were coming into place: A special text with a special history, a love of choral music, a composer of interest. But there was more. Josh graduated from high school and headed off to Carnegie Mellon University — with persistent encouragement from Andy Clark, the Singers artistic director, that he should not miss the chance to sing in Carnegie Mellon’s concert chorus, conducted by Andy’s own mentor, Robert Page. So Josh continued with choral music, and so did his parents.
Josh’s first choral performance was the Carnegie Mellon Christmas concert; David and Julie flew out to Pittsburgh. Sitting in the audience, David looked around and happened to spot Nancy Galbraith, Mr. Page’s faculty colleague at Carnegie Mellon. “I went up to her at intermission and asked whether she’d be interested in writing a setting of Sonnet 116, and she said something like, ‘Sure, have your people call my people.’”
“Her ‘people’ turned out to be her husband,” Julie said, “so we arranged to meet them the next time we went out to Pittsburgh.” The four of them had dinner. Nancy was very interested in setting a Shakespearean sonnet. She asked David and Julie about their lives, their wedding, their work as physicians, their family, why Sonnet 116 was important to them, and what sort of music they liked.
“We had just come off recording [Lukas Foss’s] The Prairie,” David said, “and I really liked that era of American classical music.”
And that was it? “Yes, that was it,” Julie said. “The next thing we got was a MIDI file.”
There were a few impediments between the arrival of the MIDI file and the world première. David was posted to Washington for a year, working at the Department of Health and Human Services. He had to take a year’s leave from the Providence Singers, but signed on with The Washington Chorus to keep his choral skills polished. On their actual anniversary — September 1, 2010 — David and Julie had a wonderful dinner in Washington, but no world première.
There were also a few impediments in Providence, where plans for the Singers’ 2010-11 season were being revamped. An opportunity to perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis was now in place for the fall, and Andy Clark had been named director of choral activities at Harvard University. Invitations were out to guest conductors for the season. The world première was looking more like April. Was that OK?
“Andy called me twice, first in Washington to explain about doing it in the spring. I said that would be fine, since we wanted to do the première after our anniversary,” David said. “He called back some time later just to be sure that it was still OK. I mentioned that we were hoping he would conduct the première, and he said Yes, he would.”
Bit by bit the concert took shape. Sonnet 116 would have its world première. Andy Clark would conduct it. Robert Page would be the Singers’ guest conductor for the concert. Nancy Galbraith’s Two Emily Dickinson Songs, which had been commissioned by the Providence Singers and premièred at the NEA festival by CONCORA, a professional choir from Connecticut, would be performed for the first time by the Singers. Friends and family would be flying in from all over to hear the new work.
And the music?
It was like receiving a present and having to unwrap it very slowly. The score arrived from Pittsburgh in November 2009 accompanied by a MIDI file from the composer, just as David was ramping up his work in Washington. He and Julie listened to it and loved what they heard even in the uninflected world of MIDI. But experiencing the magical combination of Shakespearean text and a nuanced rendering of four- and eight-part choral writing would have to wait.
It was January 2011 — after Missa Solemnis, after Messiah — when the Singers managed the first read-through. Christine Noel, who conducted that first reading, alerted the chorus to the emotional power of the piece, to its ability to take hold — particularly in the resolution of the final couplet, “nor no man ever loved.”
“I hadn’t heard it rehearsed, of course. But all our friends from Singers who sing with David in the choir at the First Unitarian Church came up to me and said it was wonderful, that I would love to hear it,” Julie said. “They said it would make me cry, but they gave us a definite thumbs-up.”
“Our families — Julie’s especially — are very creative, with a lot of authors, artists, even a RISD alum,” David said. “We come from the ... um ... scientific side of the family, so we tend not to be the ones that contribute art to the family stores. But now we offer this.”
“We didn’t really have a 25th anniversary celebration,” Julie said. “David was moving back from Washington at the time and things were chaotic. We said this concert would be our celebration, so we’ve invited everybody we know. Lots of people will be coming. California, New Jersey, Boston. It’s ending up feeling much more of a celebration than just a première.”
So the commission is turning out as you had hoped?
“Yes,” said David, “absolutely.”