Six years ago, I had the idea that a few 19th century composers might have set a few poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to music. If that music existed, I had hoped to create a choral concert in commemoration of the 200th birthday of our Portland-born poet. In its third season, 2009, after performing and recording nearly 100 musical settings of Longfellow texts -- among them an astounding 32 world premieres of the winning entries in our annual Longfellow Chorus International Composers Competition -- The Longfellow Chorus stood before what seemed to be a potentially boundless repertory of Longfellow vocal music, new and old. There are hundreds of period songs yet to be sung and recorded, and a number of very good period cantatas. Beyond these older settings, numerous new Longfellow songs, choruses and cantatas were -- and still are -- being created for The Longfellow Chorus International Composers Competition by composers from around the world -- Australia and New Zealand, Asia, Europe, North and South America -- and these are adding a fresh, modern perspective. More than 200 composers have answered our call. The music contained in this CD set is from our third annual Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Birthday Choral Concert, which took place on February 28 and March 1, 2009, just after Longfellow’s 202nd birthday.
Published in 1845, The Day is Done is a fairly early poem. Longfellow was experiencing family life as a young father, and it is easy to imagine that the person “lending the beauty of” her “voice” to the “rhyme of the poet” was young mother Frances Appleton Longfellow, 1817–1861. George Whitefield Chadwick, 1854–1931, set Longfellow’s Allah translation to music in 1887. At the time, he was a freelance composer in Boston and a church organist known for a certain Bohemian streak. Marienne Kreitlow has adeptly captured the dramatic mood of The Challenge -- a poem first published in Longfellow’s 1873 Birds of Passage, Flight the Third -- in her setting for baritone voice.
No less than in his early works, Longfellow shows in his later works an awareness that certain poems would inevitably be set to music by someone, somewhere, at some time. The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls was published near the end of Longfellow’s life in Ultima Thule, 1880, and is included under the subtitle Folk-Songs. John Knowles Paine, 1839–1906, is Portland’s other Victorian-American superstar. He grew up on Oxford Street. His father, Jacob, ran the local Chickering piano dealership where, in 1843, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow bought a piano as a wedding present for “Fanny” Appleton. It Is Not Always May -- text from Longfellow’s Ballads and Other Poems, 1842 -- is based on a Spanish proverb, no hay pájaros en los nidos de antaño: “there are no birds in last year’s nest.”
You can’t see the beautiful, light snowflakes that were falling in South Portland on March 1, 2009, as The Longfellow Chorus performed Pontet’s and Hopson’s versions of Snow-Flakes, but if you listen carefully, you might hear them. About his humorous setting for bass-baritone voice and piano, composer Riccardo La Spina comments: “‘Prescrizione’…evokes the style of comic operatic aria for bass of Longfellow’s time, with a nod to Mozart’s Don Giovanni..., one of the poet’s favorite operas.” Christmas Bells was Longfellow’s response to the outbreak of the American Civil War, and over the past 147 years, numerous composers have turned to it as a source for musical expression of outrage and hope during the onset of newer wars. In 1916, John S. Matthews, 1870–1934, used the poem as the basis for his musical response to the First World War. Kevin Jones’s contribution expresses his response to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.
Charles Ives’s impressionistic, truncated version of The Children’s Hour is paired with the atonal setting of Autumn Within by Traci Mendel. With his setting of Nature, Stanley Hoffman remembers his father, Josef, and, as the father of a four-year-old daughter, reflects on his own experience as a parent.
The mother of Edward Elgar didn’t believe that her son understood women enough to be able to attract a young bride, so she made him read Longfellow's novel Hyperion for inspiration. The result was a strange, rarely-performed cantata called The Black Knight, something that leaves the musical impression of being a late-Victorian precursor of Star Wars.
—Charles Kaufmann, Artistic Director of The Longfellow Chorus