Dirge Without Music
Performed by Patrice Michaels, soprano, and Dana Brown, piano
Edna St. Vincent Millay
VERSIONS AVAILABLE FOR:
Thomas J. Hamilton in memory of his wife, Nadine
Theodore Presser Company
Please email Stacy to check on availability.
Thomas J. Hamilton, a wonderful benefactor and supporter of new music, had previously commissioned In Eleanor’s Words and String Quartet No. 3: Gaia from me, the first piece for his mother, Marget, and the second for his wife, Nadine. Tom contacted me a third time when Nadine passed away and asked if I would set Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Dirge Without Music to music. The poem proved to be an interesting challenge – how do you set a poem whose title explicitly says not to have music? I solved this issue by starting the piece with very little music behind the soprano; the music gradually grows in intensity throughout the piece. Likewise, the ending was also challenging. Since the poem states that Millay is not resigned, I kept the music from fully resolving, thus mirroring Millay’s refusal to let go.
Additional program notes written by Thomas J. Hamilton as he reflects on his late wife, Nadine:
Remember meeting in the saxophone section of the junior high school band? Learning to waltz and foxtrot and jitterbug – never very well – right through the senior high school prom?
Remember splitting up – over what? Or whom?
Remember six years later? Lexington Avenue. New York City. You and me, opposite sides of 32nd Street, stopped at a red light? I looked across and said, “I know that woman!” How lucky was that? How likely?
You were moving to New York after grad school. You had a job at Newsweek. You had an apartment. I was being discharged from the Army. Had no job. No place to go. “Why not move to New York?” you asked innocently, perhaps. I didn’t have much to offer, but I was nobody’s fool, at least not then. I moved to New York and, much, perhaps, to your surprise, moved in.
Two and a half years later we still lived on West 75th Street in a fifth-floor walk-up where in winter the snow drifted inside the windows. But we had a fireplace, which provided warmth and, when the cockroaches roasted over the open fire, entertainment.
One morning – it seemed like a usual morning – you said, “So when are we going to get married?” Surprised, but not speechless, I said, “Why ruin a good thing?” To which you responded, “If you don’t do the right thing, this good thing is over.”
We were married at New York’s city hall by the acting assistant justice of the peace, who had a nearly debilitating stutter that made the rite almost interminable. But the marriage, the promise, lasted only a brief – all too brief, my love - forty-two years.
So this song is for you. It’s about love and anger, acceptance and the refusal to accept. About you and me. It’s funny, I suppose, setting to music a “Dirge without Music.” But remember how we loved funny, irony, fun?
I think you’ll like it. In fact I know you will. And that’s a promise, just exactly like the first one. Except that this one isn’t until death us do part. This promise is forever.