Three Silent Things


Three Silent Things


song cycle on American poets for soprano, violin, viola, cello, and piano (1984)

  • Premiere: 13 April 1984  / Curtis Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania  / Karen Hale, soprano / Michaela Paetsch, violin / Lisa Ponton, viola / Robert LaRue, cello / Daron Hagen, piano
  • Instrumentation: S.vln.vla.vlc.pft 
  • Duration: 25'
  • Text: Walt Whitman, Robert Graves, Christina Rosetti, Jack Larson, Robinson Jeffers, Adelaide Crapsey, Paul Goodman, Wallace Stevens (E) 
  • Dedication: "for Karen, Michaela, Lisa, and Robert"
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  1. I Depart as Air (Walt Whitman)
  2. Despite and Still (Robert Graves)
  3. Ferry Me Across the Water (Christina Rosetti)
  4. Do I Love You? (Jack Larson)
  5. Pitiless God (Robinson Jeffers)
  6. Three Silent Things (Adelaide Crapsey)
  7. Song Without Words (Instrumental)
  8. Just Now (Crapsey)
  9. Specimen Case (Whitman)
  10. Rain in Spring (Paul Goodman)
  11. Now That I Love You (Graves)
  12. A Clear Day and No Memories (Wallace Stevens) 
Robert La Rue and Lisa Ponton in 1983.

Robert La Rue and Lisa Ponton in 1983.

Daron Hagen in 1983.

Karen Hale in 1984.

Karen Hale in 1984.

Program note

Three Silent Things is perhaps Hagen's most personal, introspective song cycle. From the start, the composer conceived of the cycle as a summation of, and a farewell to, his years in Philadelphia. Appropriately, he reached out to his closest friends at the time and composed a work that he could perform with them.

Text-choosing, according to Hagen, "was a family affair." The first poem, I Depart as Air,  was chosen by the composer and performers over dinner at the Delancey Place brownstone they all shared. In his diary, Hagen noted, "We passed a volume of Whitman around the table, and read out bits that we liked. Then I chose from those one swatch (from Leaves of Grass) to set to music." Hagen asked Robert LaRue to suggest a companion poem by Robert Graves to join the one Hagen set as a response to Samuel Barber's 1968 setting of Despite and Still -- Now That I Love You and -- accordingly -- set them both for cello and voice. Hagen included Ferry Me Across the Water because it was the first song that he had composed for Karen Hale, the singer in the ensemble, with whom he had performed it many times. (Hagen revised the song, years later, and included it in the song cycle Letting Go.)

Hagen chose to set a portion of Larson's Do I Love You because he was looking both forward to studying with David Diamond (who had set the poem years earlier) and backward, to his time studying with Ned Rorem, who had also set the text. An earlier version of Pitiless God was composed in Madison, Wisconsin for violinist Lisa Chosy. Hagen revised the song extensively for Paetsch and Hale. Three Silent Things and Just Now frame the central, instrumental Song Without Words which serves as an elegy for Hagen's mother, and as the emotional and structural center of the cycle. He chanced upon both poems (which spoke to his condition) while thumbing through one of his mother's poetry books on a flight from Milwaukee to Colorado Springs the morning after his mother's death.

Specimen Case became something of a touchstone for Hagen over the years: beginning with this version for string trio and voice, it was recast for piano and voice years later in the cycle The Heart of the Stranger, and subsequently served as the underpinning of Frank Lloyd Wright's final, revalatory aria in the opera Shining Brow. Hagen included Goodman's Rain in Spring because Lisa Ponton liked the poem when he read it to her one afternoon. Hagen first sketched A Clear Day and No Memories at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida during winter 1984. He folded it into Three Silent Things as a final farewell to his friends. It was completed on 13 February 1984 in Philadelphia and first performed at Curtis Hall by Karen Hale, Robert LaRue, Michaela Paetsch, Lisa Ponton, and the composer.


Daron Hagen's Three Silent Things, a setting of 10 poems by such diverse authors as Adelaide Crapsey, Robinson Jeffers, Paul Goodman and Wallace Stevens proved a stately, chimerical work. Scored for piano quartet and soprano, the work is lyrical in its utterance and spare in its rhetoric. There is very little tutti playing, and the soprano is as likely as not to sing an entire poem as a duet with one of the instrumentalists. Mr. Hagen's esthetic is varied but concentrated -- a stark, proclamatory opening leads directly to a gentle cello solo; there are many such surprises throughout the work. Three Silent Things was written for Karen Noteboom, who sang it with a sweet, full tone and an appropriate dignity.

--- Tim Page, The New York Times, 10/5/86

Three Silent Things, a 30-minute work for soprano, violin, viola, cello and piano, composed by Daron Hagen in 1984, is curious [sic] music for a young man to have written. A couple of the 10 texts he sets are unusual choices, like the Adelaide Crapsey poem from which the title comes. But most of the poets, like Walt Whitman and Robert Graves, have been frequently turned to by American composers. The work begins with a Whitman text set to stern, proclamatory music with hints of 12-tone complexity. Soon the piece shifts modes and wistful tonality predominates. The composer deftly mixes spiky rhythmic restlessness, jagged instrumental lines and crunchy chords. ... Brenda Harris was the sensitive soloist.

— Anthony Tommasinni, The New York Times, 6/5/98

(Banner photo: Michaela Paetsch)