song cycle for soprano, flute, and piano (1990)
- 10 March 1991 / Dumbarton Methodist Church, Baltimore, Maryland / The Sonus Trio
- Instrumentation: S.fl.pft
- Duration: 15'
- Text: Civil war letters and poems by Annie Chambers Ketchum, Hannah Ropes, Ann Smith, Martha Ingram, and Mary Boykin Chestnut (E)
- The Bonnie Blue Flag (Annie Chambers Ketchum)
- I Stop Again (Hannah Ropes)
- The Picture Graved Into My Heart (Hannah Ropes)
- The Trouble Was Tom... (Anonymous)
- The Lord Knows (Ann Smith)
- O, For Such a Dream (Ann Smith)
- Christmas Night (Martha Ingram)
- ...Silently Dispersing (Mary Boykin Chestnut)
Hagen is a confirmed Civil War buff, and after considering and rejecting the prospect of a cycle on a war poet like Whitman, decided to set excerpts of letters by American women of the era who were directly or tangentially involved. (Significantly, Hagen composed the piece at the Virginia Center for the Arts, a short distance from some of the largest battles of the Civil War.) In some ways it is an idealized family parlor piece of the time -- Cousin Ann joins in on the flute -- simple and polite. But the expert musical treatments of the texts give them a layered richness they could never have had originally, and the result is a work of generous humanity, comforting and wise.
The second and third and fifth and sixth songs are two deliberate pairs, each of a prelude and concert scena, linked by common authors; the fourth song is an intermezzo, the seventh a nocturne; and the eighth, a scene from the last days of the war, is an understated but powerful finale which redevelops the first song's material. That song is The Bonnie Blue Flag: it uses a patriotic text by the lyricist Annie Chambers Ketchum, who presumably roots for the Confederate side. Hagen himself has called its text a 'rabble-rousing recruitment song,' but his setting gives it a hazy Ivesian distance, not only in the stacked fourths and fifths of the piano's harmony but in the way Hagen makes a collection of discrete compositional elements sing with a single voice. The vocal part is straightforward enough to almost be a popular song of the time -- something true of most of the tunes in the cycle -- but contradicts the stated seven-four time signature by being clearly heard in four-four. The song's second half has a softer, gentler tone, but still lets the singer 'rally' up to a high B flat, the vocal apogee of the cycle. The result is a song which lays the groundwork for the whole set by undercutting the optimism of the text and preparing us for a more realistic treatment of the war.
I Stop Again and The Picture Graved Into My Heart are both on texts from letters of Hannah Ropes, a famous wartime nurse. The first is a calm and intimate duet for the soprano and flute, taken up entirely with scalar transformations of a four-note motif heard at the outset; the composer gives the last three words an optimum of harmonic tension. The motif's shape persists into the opening of The Picture's accompaniment, which turns out to be a quote from Oh, I'm a Good Old Rebel to the tune of Joe Bowers, a popular ballad from the 1860's: its strands in the flute and piano start out in strict canon but free up once the melodic shapes become established. The scene is that of a nurse's bedside record, and the decorous modesty of the song aptly reflects the speaker's tone. The tempo quickens and the harmonies take warmth in the central section, as the speaker's heart moves, almost imperceptive, from pure sympathy to an admixture of sensual response: it is a measure of Hagen's humane musical reaction, as is the quick recovery to a more correct mood of mourning at the end. The Trouble With Tom provides some needed comic relief, using a Bernsteinian mixed-meter scherzo mood to tell a queer tale of three people inconveniently in love with one an other. The piccolo makes chirpy gossip, dovetailing in and out with the voice.
The fifth song is an introduction for the sixth, both on fragments of a letter from one Ann Smith to her husband David, 'Aug. 16, 1864'; they form a more dramatically intense counterweight to the pair of Ropes settings heard earlier. The Lord Knows is marked 'Freely effusive,' but as Paul Kreider has pointed out, 'strict adherence to the rhythm is vital' for effective performance. It quickens on 'restless,' gets kittenish with a naughty B flat blue note on 'I wouldn't care,' jumbles its rhythms confusedly on the next sentence, then waits out a bar before having the singer responsibly recover her social voice ('At least I hope...'): Hagen has truly caught the life of the words. It continues directly into O, for Such a Dream, perhaps the most moving song of the cycle. The lonely wife seems to accompany herself at the keyboard, with the flute playing the role of her absent husband -- it has a folk-opera mood. The harmonic idiom at the start couldn't be more basic, but becomes enriched as the singer's thoughts grow more intimate, with the flute quickening its pulse to a state of rapture, an imagined consummation. We then pull back from the brink to 'the reality of absence,' and to a tragic reinterpretation of the opening music.
In Christmas Night poor Martha Ingram writes to her husband George. The vocal part's tendency to sound out of tune by constantly changing key is most effective, as it communicates not only the lonely desolation of the speaker but her poverty as well (the text is full of pathetic but evocative misspellings.) The slithery, quasi-serial flute part, always finding its way back to the pitch D, sounds like a strange animal circling the house. In the last song, we come full-circle: the orgiastic promise of the first song has turned to bitter gall. The flute motif from Christmas Night has transformed itself into a melodic expression of the piano arpeggios of the first song, and the piano's right-hand thirds come back, too. They try to ascend into a weary, chromatically inflected C minor, as the voice part quits its sorry task. Surely the static form and ghostly tread of Der Leiermann, the finale of Winterreise, haunts this little scene.
Dear Youth was commissioned by the trio Sonus (soprano Robin Bourguignon, flutist Billie Witte, and pianist Randall K. Sheets) and premiered by them on 10 March 1991 at the Dumbarton Methodist Church in Baltimore.
— Russell Platt, 1997
For texts, Hagen found letters and diary writings of women observers of the Civil War. Reading these snippets in the program, one is struck by the poetic contrasts between the poetic and the everyday, held together in delicate balance. The work's added dramatic element tips that balance.
--- Marion Jacobson, The Washington Post, 3/26/91
These are often heartbreaking texts and Hagen is a composer who has a superb ear for catching the inflections of speech and supporting them sensitively with music. This was a real piece of chamber music -- the flute writing was impressive -- not merely songs with accompaniment. Yet, as any true song cycle must be, it was dominated by the singer with bursts of moving melody and [sic] it involved the listener with the individual narrative voices of the songs.
— Stephen Wigler,The Baltimore Sun, 3/13/91
...a good small piece of lyrical music. Its harmonies are simple and attractive but not unchallenging to play or hear. Its eight songs are mixed between arias and recitatives. The music is melancholy in seven songs but light-hearted and lightly scored on one, 'The Trouble With Tom,' making that one sound like the jazz in a dirge.
— Ernest F. Imhoff, Baltimore Evening Sun, 3/13/91
There are patriotic themes here and prayers for the end of the war, but the most vivid material, not surprisingly, comes from those accounts of how the strife affected people on a personal level. There was much to be appreciated in [Hagen's] dramatic point of view. "Oh, for Such a Dream," the most stirring in the group, was placed thoughtfully as the sixth in the cycle -- a natural place to look for an emotional climax, leaving the audience with an emotional recovery in the final pieces.
— The Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/25/91
Hagen's sophisticated songs remind me somewhat of The AIDS Quilt Songbook and deserve to be heard just as often.
— Lovelace, American Record Review, Nov-Dec 97
Hagen's songs are somewhat less conservative and more adventurous than those of [Ned Rorem's]. This does not mean that they are by any means inaccessible; just the opposite is true. They merely present more interesting vocal and musical challenges at times. Throughout, listeners can pick up traces of jazz idioms and occasional hints of Broadway, leaving a distinct impression of Americana on the ear. Hagen's pianistic writing is inventive and reminiscent of the great Romanticist composers, ranging from Schubert to Strauss. His piano parts also are often technically challenging, lavish and exuberant. Never, however, does the composer let them overwhelm the singer. Like the compositions of all major song writers, the expression of the text is preeminent, and the vocal line is always clearly defined.
— NATS Journal of Singing, January 98
[Hagen] is a confirmed Romantic, writing in a lush tonal idiom with the emphasis centered firmly on the often demanding vocal line. In addition to calling for considerable range, the vocal lines are often lightly melismatic and have a distant relation to hymns, at least to my ears. His prosidy is good, and he is often an inspired melodist.
— John Story, Fanfare Magazine, November / December, 1999