Songs of Madness and Sorrow


Songs of Madness and Sorrow


dramatic cantata for voice & piano (or) ensemble (1999)

  • Mixed Ensemble Premiere: 31 January 1997 / University Place Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, Washington / Paul Sperry / The Pacific Chamber Soloists / Troy Peters
  • Piano and Voice Premiere: 9 April 1997  / Merkin Recital Hall, New York City / Sequitur / Paul Sperry, tenor / Sara Laimon, piano
  • Mixed Ensemble Instrumentation: fl(=pic).ob(=CorA).cl(=bc) (strings may be enlarged into sections)
  • Duration: 25'
  • Text: Newspaper articles, advertisements, suicide notes, and mental health records collected from small northern Wisconsin towns around the turn-of-the-century, compiled by the composer (E).

The 2004 world premiere recording of the mixed ensemble version.

Program Note

My ancestors on one side came to Upstate Wisconsin from Norway (the Skajestads—from the town of Hagen, which means 'garden' in Norwegian) and on the other Ireland (the Taffes—we're tangentally related to President Taft) during the 1800's. I was at first shocked, and then deeply moved by the fact that the people who figured in the Charles Van Schaik photographs (as featured in Michael Lesy's book Wisconsin Death Trip) looked uncannily like the ones in our family's photo albums; the stories in the book were eerily similar to the family lore I had grown up hearing.

One sad story, in particular, concerns my namesake and ancestor Dorn, a devout Lutheran who, wrongly-accused of making off with an envelope from the Sunday collection plate (it was later found exactly where he had said it was) and poorly treated by his brethren, hung himself. I recall the summer I was told the story by my Uncle Clifford — a summer otherwise spent contentedly working on his dairy farm somewhere just shy of the Upper Penninsula bailing hay, shovelling shit, and being justly, gently and affectionately mocked for being a city-slicker from Milwaukee.

Songs of Madness and Sorrow, my dramatic cantata about life in Wisconsin, addresses the two main responses to the childlike feelings of helplessness, panic and rage created by the inhuman ravages of simple bad luck (Acts of the Market Economy) and epidemic diseases (Acts of God) in small Wisconsin towns at the end of the nineteenth century. These two responses are both paranoid in nature. One manifested itself in obsessive-compulsive behavior (which can make every person, from butcher to candlestick maker, more productive); the other was simple paranoia which arose from the realization that things had not turned out, in reality, the way that everyone, even the newspapers, had said it would. This is the interesting point, because this normally abnormal reaction was caused by the discovery of truth, not the creation of delusion. While composing the piece in New York City during July of 1996 — the AIDS epidemic raging mindlessly on — it seemed to me that things had not fundametally changed since 1896.

Paul Sperry

Paul Sperry

Proud of my Midwestern roots, I find comfort and guidance in the strangely familiar, late nineteenth century dignity that runs through the 'found' texts that I culled and adapted from period newspaper articles, advertisements, fiction, mental health records, and oral history. I adapted the texts into a libretto for a dramatic cantata — an opera without a plot — which takes place in the small towns of Upstate Wisconsin around 1890. In place of a traditional narrative, the piece moves through a series of emotional landscapes. There are a number of characters: Editor Daily, a Psychiatrist, E.L. Brockway, John Persons, Tommy Kane, and Pastor Dorn, who opens the piece with an Invocation and closes it with a Credo & Blessing (a poem by Gwen Hagen entitled A Golden Bird). The tenor portrays all the characters. Superficially, these people (all of whom really existed) may seem merely eccentric, but they were our brothers and sisters, and I believe that their humanity shines warmly, inspiringly through.

Commissioned by Paul Sperry, the first performance took place on January 31st, 1997 in Tacoma Washington. The Pacific Chamber Soloists, Paul Sperry, tenor, were conducted by Music Director Troy Peters.

Paul Sperry recorded the work with the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, conducted by Victoria Bond, for the Arsis label in 2004.

— Daron Hagen, 2003


I sense that Hagen found plenty of inspiration when composing it. It is mesmerizing.

— Kilpatrick, American Record Guide, 11-12/04

A riveting one-man opera and a dialogue with a forgotten past that feels strangely familiar in our own time. 

— Frank Oteri, NewMusicBox, 10/04

Hagen photographed at Yaddo by Sharon Cumberland during the composition of Songs of Madness and Sorrow.

(Banner photo by Charles Van Sheik)