SSAA with piano or string quartet, 7′. Commissioned by the Pennsylvania Girlchoir, Vincent Metallo, music director, for its Tenth Anniversary. Premiered 1 June 2014, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia.
Setting Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” for the Pennsylvania Girlchoir, I knew that the big moment would obviously be in the last three lines: “I love thee with the breath,/ Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,/ I shall but love thee better after death.”
I wanted that to hit as one of my favorite moments in music hits: the opening of the Five Mystical Songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams. (More about the whole process of composing this is here.) The text of the Vaughan Williams begins, “Rise heart; thy Lord is risen,” but before those words are heard there’s a succession of gathering triplets, the building up and layering of mild dissonances that finally break upon a seawall of massive, stacked chords of thirds, pounding while “Rise heart” soars overhead.
“I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears” ought to have unfolded similarly, heating the voices to a rolling boil, washing, splashing, overlapping. After a disappointing start in my composing, which produced only Vaughan Williams lite, the music slowly came into view. No triplets, just straight quarters. I kept a lot of the thirds but changed other aspects. Yet the spirit of Vaughan Williams hovered over this passage.
It’s a calm work, even for that loudness. At first, I was ruled by the passion of the words, but then their precision came to the fore, almost as if the poet stops, takes a breath, and wishes to reason with herself. It’s why the first line is repeated at the end of this setting. I wanted above all to capture first love and lasting love, innocence and wisdom, and the voice of Elizabeth Barrett Browning sung by the young women of the Pennsylvania Girlchoir.
As I write this, the sound of their voices, directed by Vincent Metallo at one of their last rehearsals before the premiere, rings amazingly. They are able to sing with so much subtlety around tip-toeing harmonies and yet then can unleash a breathtaking wall of sound. They are a remarkable choir, Vincent brings a wonderful vision, and there was no need for me to say anything at the rehearsal: it was that beautifully in hand. I’m thrilled to have been asked to be a part of their tenth anniversary celebrations.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and Ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith;
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)
“Sonnet 43,” Sonnets from the Portuguese, 1845