Dan Forrest (b. 1978)
Three Nocturnes (2008)
“In the end, I believe that music-making is worth it as an end in itself; music is simply worth it. And people who get involved with choral music get that.”
“The instrument is us. It’s not some thing we hold in our hands or some thing we sit at and press keys down. We are the instrument; we are that music. It comes from within.”
— Dan Forrest
The Providence Singers first encountered the music of Dan Forrest in the fall of 2014, when it performed his 2013 work Requiem for the Living. The Requiem was unexpectedly powerful in performance, fully engaging audiences in the second half of a program that began with three Bach motets. Little more than two years later, the Singers traveled to Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Mass., to create a studio recording of the work.
The two Forrest works on this weekend’s program highlight some of the qualities that make his music both engaging and satisfying. His melodies are attractive and compelling, and his respect for the text leads to sudden moments when words and music appear to fuse. The allegro agitato “Myriads with beating hearts of fire” in the first movement of the Nocturnes is one such moment. His setting of Emily Dickinson’s phrase, “Lightly stepped a yellow star,” in the second movement is another. There are many more.
Since his first published work in 2001, Forrest’s compositions have sold nearly 2 million copies and have been widely performed in the United States and internationally. He has adjudicated numerous regional and national composition contests and keeps a full schedule of commissions, workshops, recordings, and residencies with universities, churches, and community ensembles, presenting his music, teaching composition and theory, and often serving as accompanist. Forrest holds a doctoral degree in composition from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in piano performance.
The commission that produced this work, from the West Valley Chorale of Sun City, Arizona, caught Forrest at what he calls “a perfect time for me, when I had been marveling at the night skies on the plains of Kansas.” He chose night-sky poetry by three legends of American literature: Sara Teasdale, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman. Forrest’s own comments on each of the three movements:
I. Stars (Sara Teasdale)
“The first movement ... opens up sonic space as a way to paint the expanse of the heavens. A mysterious and almost exotic introduction gives way to a burst of color and dynamic, as stars appear over the treetops. A contrasting middle section of the poem provides opportunity for a fiery B section, before a return to the opening moods leaves us alone in that same ‘sonic space.’”
II. Lightly stepped a yellow star (Emily Dickinson)
“The second movement ... paints its wonderful text with staccato singing and an additive contrapuntal texture. Again, a middle section provides contrast but this time the contrast is velvety and ethereal, with hints of the energetic first section popping up between phrases. The one-word punchline of the poem, “punctual,’ is then revealed. Several hints of this temporal element are present in the piece — from the ‘cogs and gears’ clockwork texture to a subtle hint of Big Ben.”
III. ... Thou motive of the stars (Walt Whitman, from Passage to India)
“The third movement ... is the most majestic and declamatory of the set, building to the overwhelming chorale-style setting of the title line. Near the end, the mysterious silence of the opening bars of the whole set returns, and the entire set ends with the ‘stars’ theme and the sense of space from the first movement.”
Poet Jake Adam York is known for verse that elegizes martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement. His poem “Abide” was inspired by Thelonius Monk’s recording of the classic funereal hymn “Abide With Me.” About his setting of York’s poem, Forrest has written:
“My setting hints at that hymn and seeks to evoke a sense of Americana on a warm late-summer evening. Inspired by York’s own direct manner of reading his own poetry, I chose to set most of his text in a rather homophonic and syllabic style, surrounding it with richer textures which envelop and embrace his own honest voice. ... York’s poem is worth pondering deeply on many levels, and I hope this musical setting enables repeated and ever-deeper reflection on the work of this gifted poet.”
Poetry of Sara Teasdale, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman