Category Archives: Art songs

There Is No Great and No Small

americanflagThere Is No Great and No Small. Mezzo-soprano, piano, 3′. Text by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Premiered Philadelphia: 8 Oct 2016, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 9 Oct 2016, the Academy of Vocal Arts.

For Lyric Fest’s opening concert of the 2016/17 season, titled I Hear America Singing, I was commissioned to set a poem of Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his 1841 first series of Essays. The poem sometimes carries the title of “The Informing Spirit.” I composed this song for mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis and pianist Laura Ward, the co-directors of Lyric Fest.

There is no great and no small
To the Soul that maketh all:
And where it cometh, all things are;
And it cometh everywhere.

I am owner of the sphere,
Of the seven stars and the solar year,
Of Cæsar’s hand, and Plato’s brain,
Of Lord Christ’s heart, and Shakespeare’s strain.

I read somewhere that the elemental vibration of the universe is a B-flat. What that means, or how that is calculated, I don’t know, but it gets your attention. Emerson’s words connected me to that concept, so I put the song in B-flat, but the dichotomy of small and great suggested a twist. So instead of a big, fat B-flat major or a dark B-flat minor, I twisted it into one of my favorite modes, the lydian, the defining note of which is the raised 4th, so I hope you like the entrance of that first E natural as much as I do. There is a simplistic, almost silly spinning of 8th-notes, which work themselves into a two-part counterpoint of different small phrases. These I repeat at different scale degrees and in different orders, and that is a fair description of what goes on in the song. The words, as words will always, tell me where to stretch, where to lay back, and where to land.

I Hear America Singing featured an all-American program of Stephen Foster, George Crumb, Elliot Carter, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, and along with There Is No Great and No Small there was a commissioned new arrangement by John Conahan and a premiere finale by Daron Hagen.


Residency at Greenville College


Jeff Wilson rehearsing the College Choir

What a great three days I enjoyed in Illinois as the guest composer for the 32nd annual Greenville College Schoenhals Fine Arts Symposium. A Thursday night concert and a Friday morning college chapel performance of seven pieces wove around seven classes, a composer master class, rehearsals, a coaching, a reception, a tour of the college radio station… and lots and lots of eating.

Anthems O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, The Word of God, and God So Loved the World, along with last year’s commission from Lyric Fest and Singing City, The Heavens Declare, were sung gorgeously by the Greenville College choirs and the Greenville Free Methodist Sanctuary Choir, all excellently prepared and conducted by Jeff Wilson, who along with being the Director of Choral Activities and Music Department Chair at GC, directs the music at the church.

Chris Woods, who teaches music theory, composition, low brass, and is an excellent bass trombonist, led the brass quintet in two works of mine, a newly refurbished St. Theodulph March (on the hymn tune to “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”) and my arrangement of Benedetto Marcello’s Psalm 19. They also used the brass arrangement I had made for O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and one I put together two weeks ago for The Word of God.

Soprano Caitlin Hadeler sang brilliantly my Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with riveting accompaniment by Catherine Burge. I was so happy to have met Catherine a couple of months ago for coffee on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, where we talked over the songs; she was in town for a workshop. Caitlin is brand-new at the college and simply won everyone over with her reading of these fairly challenging songs, and surprised me by doing them from memory (after using music at the rehearsal). Good show!

O Come, O Come, EmmanuelThe Word of God and The Heavens Declare were repeated for the chapel, where I also spoke about what it’s like to be a composer with faith in a world that is often without it. I chose the text of John 21:1–14, wondering why on earth John would tell us that there were 153 fish in the net. The Schoenhals Symposium was founded to explore the interaction of creativity and Christian faith.

Chris Woods was my second composition teacher, back when I was beginning my college career at Philadelphia College of Bible, now Cairn University. He is as humble, unassuming, supportive, and spiritual a soul now as he was then. And he still rocks the bass trombone. I was blessed to have known him then, honored to know him now, and thankful to have shared a few days with him. I’m so glad we renewed our friendship a few years back.

Sarah Todd accompanied the choir beautifully; thanks to her and to all the staff at GC who put the details together to make this happen. Thanks to the faculty for inviting me into their music, theology, and communications classes, and to the church choir for letting me insinuate myself into their bass section at rehearsal! A special thanks to the Schoenhals family—specifically, Carolyn and Dale Martin—for their support, their warm welcome, and for keeping such an enriching idea alive. Greenville’s a great place to be.


Concert sound-check


This Song Changed the Course of Music


detail, Schubertiade, Julius Schmid, 1897

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 19 Oct 2015]

Two hundred one years ago this week, Franz Schubert wrote a song that would alter the course of music history. “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” is an unassuming title for Schubert’s first masterpiece and the start of an entire genre of music.

Alone, Gretchen gazes from her spinning wheel. It spins, it clicks, the foot pedal goes up and down, all without stopping. She despairs over the love she has lost, and she will not be consoled. She knows that the peace once in her heart she will never find again.

Franz Schubert found Goethe’s poem in Faust, published just a few years earlier. In “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” his first setting of Goethe, Schubert not only found his calling, he founded an entire type of composition, the art song. He would compose more than 600 of them in his 31 short years.

There had been songs before, of course. But art songs—in particular, German Lieder—were new. Not drawn from opera, they were self-contained concert dramas for voice and piano, setting poems steeped in romantic philosophy. They place the self-aware, if flawed, individual against nature or society, where it shines in all its glory—or despair.

Deceptively simple, Schubert’s harmonic agitation and melodic rage reflect Gretchen’s turmoil, while the wheel inexorably turns.

Schubert’s emotional knowledge staggers in its maturity. He had been composing songs for four years before this one. Gretchen am Spinnrade changed the course of music. Schubert was 17.

Lyric Fest Residency: A Look Back on Film

As 2014–15 Composer in Residence for Lyric Fest, the Philadelphia art song group, I wrote three works for them: Mark the Music, a Shakespeare song for soprano, tenor, baritone, and piano, In This Blue Room, a 45-minute cycle for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and piano, and The Heavens Declare, a setting of Psalm 19 for the Singing City choir, trio (soprano, mezzo, baritone), audience, and piano.

John Thornton filmed us all during the year, as did Joe Hannigan of Weston Sound, who also recorded audio. John then put together the 18-minute film above. Some of the footage is from an interview during an on-air shift one afternoon at WRTI. He asked some very good questions which I don’t know if I got near to answering, but John lovingly edited and assembled this tribute to Lyric Fest and their vision in having their first-ever composer in residence in their 11-year history.

My huge thanks go to everyone involved.

For Mark the Music: soprano Jessica Lennick, tenor Eric Rieger, baritone Michael Adams

For In This Blue Room: mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis, baritone Daniel Teadt; poets Julia Blumenreich, Susan Fleshman, Siobhan Lyons, and Donna Wolf-Palacio, and all inspired by the vibrant batik artwork of Laura Pritchard.

For The Heavens Declare: soprano Elizabeth Weigle, mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams, baritone Randall Scarlata, Singing City and their director Jeffrey Brillhart

Most of all, my deepest gratitude and thanks go to Suzanne DuPlantis and pianist Laura Ward, who are the artistic directors of Lyric Fest but more than that have become dear friends who are “connecting people through song” and who know the real purpose of music. I am honored beyond words to have been able to work with them.

A Video About In This Blue Room

In This Blue Room is a 17-song, 45-minute song cycle commissioned by Lyric Fest on poems of Julia Blumenreich, Susan Fleshman, Siobhan Lyons, and Donna Wolf-Palacio, which are based on the batik artwork of Laura Pritchard. It premiered 13 and 15 March 2015 with mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis, baritone Daniel Teadt, and pianist Laura Ward. The complete text and more information is here.

John Thornton put together a very nice 12-minute video of me, speaking before the March 15th performance at the Academy of Vocal Arts.


Reviews of In This Blue Room

Sleeves High Res

Sleeves, by Laura Pritchard

In the Philadelphia Inquirer, David Patrick Stearns reviewed the first of the premiere concerts of In This Blue Room—the cycle setting four poets inspired by the batik paintings of Laura Pritchard—and in the Broad Street Review, Tom Purdom reviewed the second. Purdom had also written up a preview of the concerts in BSR after attending the preview party where four of the songs were presented.

Almost a dozen people have clipped out the Inquirer review to give to me, and almost without fail they say something like, “I’ve read this a couple of times, and still don’t know if he liked it.” You can make up your own mind by clicking the link above, but I’m going to go out on a limb to say that Stearns liked it and seemed to appreciate what it was attempting to do. But he also was somewhat puzzled by it.

That’s okay by me; I’m kind of puzzled by it, too. “Smith…pulled a large rabbit out of the hat: The last thing I expected was a jazz-hybrid idiom.” The songs “functioned in ways familiar to classical art song,” but with elements made up from “Sarah Vaughan-era jazz,” which is exactly right, as I explain in my notes here.

A surprise to me was his reference to “Leonard Bernstein’s late-period Arias and Barcarolles, with its wide range of compositional techniques, vernacular and otherwise.” He may be right; it just hadn’t occurred to me. But this happens all the time. People will hear things in my music completely distant from where I think the materials are pointing. I thought one old piece was right out of Hindemith, yet a friend heard Debussy. Composer colleagues of mine admit to similar experiences.

He noted places where the poems zig and I zagged; precisely so, and captured in one word the atmosphere of one song: “lounge-y.” Perfect!

I think that he was thrown by some passages of fast parlando, the vocalese-like writing mimicking instrumental improvisation, which the singers caught excellently. Laura Ward accompanied brilliantly but maybe I should have allowed her to “let loose” more? Hm.

I’m amused by how some look at my music. I started with vocal music and have written that for years. So it’s funny to me to read “Songs are not what Kile Smith is known for amid a high-concept output that includes sacred choral works and new music for ancient instrument[s].” Of course, I was toiling in relative obscurity, so it could be true that I’m not “known for” that. But it is funny to me, in the same way that people hear recent pieces I’ve written for The Crossing and think that all I write, after decades of writing for amateur choirs, is, well, hard stuff.

Tom Purdom’s preview includes an awfully nice compliment: “His work can evoke torch songs and jazz without actually being either, along with a spectrum of moods and styles that are uniquely his.” In his review, he went on to write that the songs “may or may not be pure jazz but they evoke the spirit of jazz and late-night clubs. The two singers who presented the premiere, mezzo Suzanne DuPlantis and baritone Daniel Teadt, captured that spirit with every bar they sang.”

He also mused over my wrangling of the 17 poems into a narrative of my own making, which sparked some interesting and perhaps humorous questions for him, before he concluded that this was an “unforgettable episode in Lyric Fest’s unpredictable journey through the world of song.”

I can say this without a doubt, which you make take with a grain of salt because the following is my review: with these musicians, this poetry, this artwork, and whatever this music was, the audiences were bowled over by In This Blue Room.

Plain Truths with Lawrence Indik

Plain Truths p4Lucky indeed am I to have seen and heard such a fantastic performance of Plain Truths on Wednesday night, March 11th, at Temple University. This was the original version, five songs with piano accompaniment. Baritone Lawrence Indik, professor at Temple University, with pianist Charles Abramovic, gave a spirited and emotional performance.

It came to me again how much the singer must take on to bring the characterization of these songs across, not least of which is “Oh, Andrew,” where he must sing the boy’s and the girl’s and the narrator’s parts. He also becomes a fiery abolitionist and an eccentric, and must sing my version of a melodramatic salon song. Indik caught the personalities spot on. Abramovic was brilliant, and captured every nuance.

I’ve since added two more songs, optional chorus, and an optional string quartet accompaniment, but in the first version the songs, with piano, are:

1. I am aware (William Lloyd Garrison)
2. Annie Lisle (Henry S. Thompson)
3. Plain Truths (“Lord” Timothy Dexter)
4. Oh, Andrew (Harriett Prescott Spofford)
5. Spirit of Freedom (Garrison)

Also on the recital was David Carpenter’s Job, for baritone, piano, and cello, which were thoughtful and intimate. The cellist and Temple professor Jeffrey Solow played lusciously.

Three Yiddish Songs by the 94-year old Montreal cantor and composer David Botwinik ended the program, and were an absolute treat: heart-rending and optimistic at the same time.

Indik inhabited the character of each set perfectly. I’m so thankful to him for championing my music, and for being such an engaging performer.

Here are notes to Plain Truths.