This chamber setting of "My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer" was commissioned by the Sarasa Chamber Music Ensemble and premiered May 21, 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It's a new arrangement of the original setting for voice, oboe & piano (1986).
Mark Strand’s evocative poem provides the framework for the piece which mirrors the tripartite structure of the text.
I’m drawn to poetry that combines sublime natural beauty with powerful underlying meaning and I was moved in much the same way by this poem. (Other settings include "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Sara Teasdale, a poem which speaks of nature reclaiming a world devastated by war, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Tides" which is a rich evocation of an iconic coastal scene that serves as a metaphor for constancy and renewal.)
Strand places his mother in a scene that is both vivid and poignant. The setting is almost mystical given the languid, metaphorical nature of her surroundings and the existential questions she faces. We find her soberly contemplating her life “on an evening in late summer” as it were. For her the day is late and she wonders how she’s come to this moment “if not for the conditions of love that brought her to this.” Like her, we all make choices we hope will bring some measure of happiness though we cannot know for certain until we've lived those choices. It’s a dramatic and moving reflection by the poet son.
Mark Strand was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990 though he was born on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s maritime provinces. Given the poem’s imagery, his birthplace seems to have informed the setting and is reminiscent to me of where I grew up in rural Wisconsin near Lake Michigan. However, it’s Strand's ability to convey the poignancy of the human condition which I most sought to reflect in this piece.
MY MOTHER ON AN EVENING IN LATE SUMMER
by Mark Strand (1980)
music by Tom Vignieri (1986 and 2016)
Aaron Engebreth, baritone
Peggy Pearson, oboe
Franziska Huhn, harp
Christina Day Martinson & Haldan Martinson, violins
Jenny Stirling, viola
Jennifer Morsches, cello
audio recording by Aaron Leclerc
mixing and mastering by James Donahue
Friends Meeting House, Cambridge, MA
First Parish Church, Concord, MA
VIDEO OF THIS WORK
When the moon appears
and a few wind-stricken barns stand out
in the low-domed hills
and shine with a light
that is veiled and dust-filled
and that floats upon the fields,
my mother, with her hair in a bun,
her face in shadow, and the smoke
from her cigarette coiling close
to the faint yellow sheen of her dress,
stands near the house
and watches the seepage of late light
down through the sedges,
the last gray islands of cloud
taken from view, and the wind
ruffling the moon's ash-colored coat
on the black bay.
Soon the house, with its shades drawn closed, will send
small carpets of lampglow
into the haze and the bay
will begin its loud heaving
and the pines, frayed finials
climbing the hill, will seem to graze
the dim cinders of heaven.
And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour's spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.
My mother will go indoors
and the fields, the bare stones
will drift in peace, small creatures --
the mouse and the swift -- will sleep
at opposite ends of the house.
Only the cricket will be up,
repeating its one shrill note
to the rotten boards of the porch,
to the rusted screens, to the air, to the rimless dark,
to the sea that keeps to itself.
Why should my mother awake?
The earth is not yet a garden
about to be turned. The stars
are not yet bells that ring
at night for the lost.
It is much too late.
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