Performed By: Arleen Auger, soprano; Members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra, Joel Revzen, conductor

Soprano, piano or chamber orchestra: flute, oboe, 2 Bb clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, harp, percussion [chimes, vibraphone, marimba, orchestra bells, tam-tam (medium)], strings

Text: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Duration: 25 minutes

Commissioned By:
Arleen Auger

August 3, 1989 by Arleen Auger, soprano, at the Aspen Music Festival

Available From:
Oxford University Press, distributed by C.F. Peters and Goodmusic Publishing

Composer's Notes:
I met Arleen Auger in 1988 through our mutual friend, Joel Revzen. It was April, morel mushroom hunting time in Minnesota, and that is what we talked about for the better part of our first meeting - mushroom hunting, nature, the human spirit, music, and the energy which takes us beyond our natural lives. Arleen spoke to me about her love of the art song repertoire. She talked about love, and life, and her desire that I compose a work which spoke about the finding of mature love. She wished to create with me a cycle of songs which were in contrast to the young girl's feeling for the promise of love in Frauen Lieben und Leben. Arleen told me that the poetry she most loved was Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. She admired the fact that within the stylized and romantic language, lived a creative woman grappling with issues seem still to engulf modern women. What part of her voice must she sacrifice to the lover and the world? Will the sacrifice be reciprocated? Can her essence survive? Browning at times soars to heights of daring - demanding the world take her as she is - at other moments her self-confidence wavers. Ultimately she realizes - as we must - that love and death demand constant faith in the leaps life requires.

Over the next months, Arleen and I read the Sonnets and decided together on a grouping that represented Browning's growth in mature love and at the same time touched the artist in Arleen. We worked by mail and in person. I most remember the meeting in my living room when we both had our copies of the Sonnets spread out on the floor and we lay on our stomachs for the better part of two hours struggling over a line in "My Letters" trying to understand what it meant. Celia Novo, Arleen's wonderful friend, and my daughter Wynne brought us food and added their thoughts to the discussion. For me that afternoon was the essence of why a composer lives to work.

Arleen's plan for the work was to preview it at the Aspen Music Festival with the Aspen Music Festival Orchestra, Joel Revzen conducting. We did so in 1989. After that preview we would then perfect the work and preview it again. We eliminated one song and revised another and composed a new song. We then previewed the cycle with members of both the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra at the Ordway Music Theater in November 1991 with the intent of recording it as an aid to securing the official premier performance. Shortly thereafter, Arleen became ill.

In our last correspondence, Arleen wrote this:
“Finally I have been able to find enough peace and quiet, rest and concentration time... to listen to the tape of our piece… Oh, Libby, every time I hear our piece the more I fall in love with it. You have really written something very special which touches my heart and speaks my intentions from our project. I only regret that I will not be able to debut (premier) it and that someone will have that pleasure and honor because it will and must be performed!” (March 1993)

In our work I had the pleasure of collaborating with a supremely graceful, intelligent, spiritual and deeply talented human being. I am the one who is honored to have worked with Arleen Auger.

— Libby Larsen, 1993


This dialogue is transformed into a musical metaphor of resolved and unresolved harmonies which informs the harmonic language of the six songs. The opening bars introduce a musical motif constructed to include suspension and unexpected resolution. The juxtaposition of resolved and unresolved also appears in a repeated chordal pattern of alternating fifths (resolved) and thirds (less resolved). These two basic musical ideas permeate the songs, defining the structure and providing context for Browning's sonnets.

In the second song, "My Letters!," the questions are voiced more emphatically by inversion of the fifths and thirds to fourths and sixths. Harmonically this inversion creates a "white" sound evoking Browning's "dead paper." The song wants to head toward resolution by allowing the fifths and thirds to return in their “normal" relationship toward the conclusion of the song. But this resolution remains unfulfilled. The opening questions return, now in A minor (augmented), in the third song. A simple calling theme is passed around suggesting Browning's "I'll answer thee."

In the fourth song Browning poses a difficult situation, "If I leave all for thee, wilt thou exchange and be all to me?" Here the ground is not easy and the suspensions demanding. But the daring of total self- acceptance and the need to expect the same from love and world leads Browning to moments of doubt. The apparent retreat from non-resolution in this sonnet finds ironic expression in the choice of a resolved and traditional ending in C major, suggesting, perhaps, that while the harmony may at first feel comforting and familiar, the lack of non-resolution represents a momentary lapse of faith and courage. She seems to weaken in her willingness to face the unknown and unresolved.

The final song returns to the initial musical theme and reaffirms the strength of her search. If there are answers, surely they can be uncovered only as we float - suspended - in the open spaces of unresolved harmonies. Such a conclusion would certainly be in keeping with Browning's own leaps and call, in the end, for faith. A call for faith and the need to leave questions unresolved are messages that may seem anachronistic to the modern reader/listener. But the strength to be found in this lack of resolution - both in Browning sonnets and the music - represent the fundamental strength women bring to the world. For while death brings a definite end to this questioning, love requires a never ending process, joy and pain for as long as we are willing and able to live in it.

— Libby Larsen
Please visit C. F. Peters for the piano/vocal score and to rent the conductor's score and parts.
Additional Information:
Available on several recordings, notably "The Art of Arlene Auger," which is represented on this page.

Score Errata:
(for Orchestral Score)
IV. If I leave all for thee
m.68 - 2nd violin: should be E-flat

(for Piano/Vocal score, OUP Cat. No. 96.310)

Piano reduction and orchestral version on Auger recording do not match. Libby Larsen prefers the piano reduction.

I. I Thought once how Theocritus had sung
m.6 - RH piano, beat 1: upper note, should be D (not C)

II. My Letters
m.16 RH piano, beat 3: should be an E-natural
m.25 LH piano: lowest voice pattern should be the same as mm. 21-24 and mm. 26-31. (Should be Eb-C, Eb-C, Eb-C, and not Eb-D, Eb-D, Eb-D)
mm.28-29 RH piano: upper voice pattern should be the same as mm. 21-24, and mm. 26-31. (Should be G-F-D, G-F-D, G-F-D, G-F-D, and not F-F-D, F-F-D, F-F-D, F-F-D)

IV. If I leave all for thee
m.18 - RH piano, beat 6: no rest, but upper note also should be a quarter note tied to next measure
m.19 - LH piano, beat 1: A-flat
m.21 - voice, beat 3: B-flat
m.39 - voice, beat 2: A-flat
mm.42-44- RH piano: upper voice is C (not E)

V. Oh, Yes!
m.16 - RH piano, beat 3: RH should be an F
m.25 - RH piano, beat 1: lower note is an A
m.27 - RH piano, beat 2: lower note is D-natural (not E)
m.34 - RH piano, beat 2: lower note is G-natural (not A)
m.34 - RH piano, beat 3: lower note is A-flat, A-natural (not A, G)

VI. How do I love thee?
m.48, RH piano, beat 1: last 16th-note should be D (not E)
m.49, RH piano, beat 1: last 16th-note should be D (not G)