mezzo-soprano, cello (1990, rev. 2005) 11’, four movements
lyrics by John Berryman
published by Sweet Child Music
- commissioned by the National Conference on John Berryman
In 1990, I was asked to contribute a song to a set of songs on poetry by John Berryman, written for various combinations of mezzo-soprano, cello, and piano, by a number of composers in the Twin Cities. These songs were written for the National Conference on John Berryman, held at the University of Minnesota (where Berryman had taught from 1955-1972). After the conference, I realized that it would be hard to find more performances for my single song for mezzo and cello, so I decided to write three more Berryman songs to make a set. I finished two more of the songs in 1991; but other projects soon interceded, and I never got around to writing the last song of the set (and revising the earlier songs) until 2005.
John Berryman was one of the most important poets of his generation, winning many prestigious awards including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He led a rather difficult life, battling depression and alcoholism throughout; he eventually committed suicide in 1972. His poetry is often autobiographical, and is thus rather dark and austere, built upon dense and complex language and imagery. Many of his poems are about a character named “Henry,” who is quite obviously Berryman’s poetic alter-ego.
My Berryman songs are thus also dark and austere, as befits Berryman’s poems. Even the third song, a jaunty blues (Berryman was a big fan of blues music), melds the undercurrents of despair and hope that are typical of blues music. I am not usually attracted to dense and difficult poetry for musical settings; but the compelling nature of his work, with its innate lyricism, seemed well complemented by music. The overall affect of the dark and spare scoring for mezzo and cello also seemed quite fitting for Berryman’s poetry.