We're All Here


We're All Here


for mixed chorus and ten instruments (or) piano (2002 / 2008)

  • Premiere (version with ensemble): 23 October 2002  / First Unitarian Society, Madison, Wisconsin  / The Brookfield Central High School Chorus / Present Music / Phillip Olson
  • Premiere (version with piano): 11 May 2008 / Trinity Lutheran Church, Madison, Wisconsin / Wisconsin Chamber Choir / Robert Gehrenbeck
  • Instrumentation (ensemble): SATB, flute, oboe, clarinet, marimba/vibraphone, piano, 2 violins, viola, cello, contrabass (or) piano
  • Duration: 12'
  • Text: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Frost, James Fenimore Cooper (E) 

I. Pied Beauty (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
II. Raking Leaves (Robert Frost)
III. We're All Here (James Fenimore Cooper) 

Program note

This autumnal piece is cyclic in shape, a gentle meditation on mortality that ends with rebirth. There's a good deal of nostalgia for my Wisconsin childhood in it. Inasmuch as there is a program, I imagine it performed outdoors on a beautiful, cool, early autumn evening on the rolling lawn of a prairie-style home somewhere along the shores of Lake Mendota, the smell of grilling brats, newly-fallen leaves, lake water, and Leinenkugel beer mingling in the air. There are children everywhere. 

In Hopkins' 1918 Pied Beauty, he advanced the delightful idea that God may be an impressionist, creating using tiny dots of color, or stipples; when Hopkins mentioned in line seven "all things counter, original, spare, strange" he was referring to animals' actions in nature as well as humans' actions in society. I reacted to Hopkins' curtal sonnet by devising a chaconne (a repeated chord progression) that, in its 'open-ended' (it ends each time by modulating into a new key) construction, is a musical manifestation of the poem's sprung paeonic rhythm. The seamless choral fabric carries my setting of Hopkins' hymn to 'dappled things;' the instrumental ensemble personifies those things. 

Robert Frost, in Gathering Leaves, may have been attempting to symbolize in the endless and elusive autumn task of raking leaves the persistent pursuit of unseen ends or the difficulty of artistic triumphs, but I think he was also playfully celebrating the pure ritual of activity enjoyed for its own sake. The task seems endless and the gathered leaves slight and valueless, but it is a necessary cleansing rite whose chief goal is preparation for seasonal renewals. I manifested the emotionally cool elusiveness of the leaves being swept upwards by the breeze in rising whole-tone melodies and tremulous strings; I alternated this scene with emotionally warmer chorale settings of what I imagined to be the gatherer's internal thoughts. 

The poem We're All Here serves as frontispiece to the 1843 James Fennimore Cooper novel Wyandotte; or, The Hutted Hill. It is a tale of colonial border life, planned and written in the spirit of his better-known novel The Deerslayer. I have chosen to imagine this poem as taking place at Thanksgiving, when families -- despite the conflicts that divide them --  unite. I have lost numerous good friends to AIDS. Many were denied acceptance by society because of their lifestyle, some even by their families. We're All Here is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the AIDS epidemic, 1980-present; however, it is also a tribute to those who have survived. In my setting of Cooper's poem, I progressed from a feeling of remembrance and mourning to acceptance and, ultimately to the joyous spirit of Hopkins' Pied Beauty.

I was astonished by how acutely I identified with this final poem. I believe that it sums up, as no other piece I have written save for the ending of my opera Amelia, the deep regret for the loss of my loved ones that, for much of my life, I felt inside. I'll always hope, on some level, that someday we'll all be together again for that singular meal at which we were all happy in our love for one another, and we knew it.

Commissioned by the Brookfield Central High School Chorus, Phillip Olson, Director and the Present Music Ensemble, We're All Here was premiered on 23 October 2002 at the First Unitarian Society, Madison, Wisconsin.

— Daron Hagen

Robert Gehrenbeck

Robert Gehrenbeck


Soul is hard to define, but you know it when you hear it. It filled our ears, our hearts and the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on Sunday as Present Music played its annual Thanksgiving concert.... [giving] the premiere of Daron Hagen's We're All Here, for mixed choir and large chamber ensemble. Hagen's setting of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Frost and James Fennimore Cooper has a sense of autumnal sunset about its sentiments and colors, but We're All Here is not about the dying of the light. Its golden hues glow brighter as the music passes, from murmuring embers driven by tremolo chords on the marimba to a bonfire of familial warmth at the end of the Fennimore Cooper poem, which gives the piece its name. The harmonies build to searing heat and the volume rises, but the music remains light and transparent. The climax does not crush; it glows and pulses with joy colored by a yearning for a world filled with pure and all-embracing love.

— Tom StriniMilwaukee Journal Sentinel11/24/03

The Milwaukee-born composer has a special relationship to Madison. He wrote and premiered his first opera, Shining Brow, for the Madison Opera in 1993. The work was a hit and changed his life in ways that he still feels deeply today. The powerful and quite beautiful opera about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright has been revived several times, and Hagen has almost completed a recording of it. (See accompanying story) He says he feels his new piece reflects the way he has grown as a person and an artist, a growth that started with Shining Brow. "Ever since then, I have understood the importance of music connecting with a community of some sort," Hagen says in a recent phone interview. "I've become more demanding on myself as a composer and more selective in the commission projects I choose." He's in the middle of writing a series of three concertos: a work for piano left hand for the gifted but disabled pianist Gary Graffman; a double concerto for violin and cello for the husband-and-wife team of Jamie Laredo and Sharon Robinson; and a trombone concerto, which is still in the planning stages. The first concerto, for Graffman, is based on the seven last words of Christ on the cross. The double concerto is called "Pieta," named for the famous Michelangelo sculpture of Mary holding her dead son at the foot of the cross. The trombone concerto will deal with no less than the end of the world. "The trombone will be the lead voice, but the orchestral trombones will signify the four horsemen of the apocalypse," Hagen explains. "I want to create a cathartic situation for the audience, the players and me." He recounts that Graffman "wedded himself to his concerto. I had a lot of people hugging me after that premiere. It was post 9-11, and it gave me a sense of community and being deeply connected with the people. I'm not even associated with any organized religion, but I want these works to be faith-based. I want music to mean something to people." The new piece's themes are less overtly religious, but it continues Hagen's striving for spiritual connections. He says all he has left of his immediate family is a sister-in-law, and he no longer comes back to Milwaukee for the holidays. 

"I thought there was a really strong sentiment for families coming together despite their fights and differences," he says. "My father died last year and we left a lot unsaid, of course. The piece is a gentle meditation on mortality that ends with rebirth. We're All Here is about everybody you've ever known, living or dead, and how they are all present in some way," he says. "I talked to the choir director about collaborating with Present Music. I love the idea of giving high school students a chance to work with professional musicians." The piece will feature the chorus with the acclaimed Milwaukee ensemble and is based on three literary texts. The first is Pied Beauty, an impressionistic poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that celebrates "all things counter, original, spare, strange," among animals and humans. Hagen will use this to honor people who are 'different in lifestyles, and different in the best way, creatively," he says. The work is dedicated to victims and survivors of AIDS, among whom Hagen counts many friends. The second poem is Robert Frost's Gathering Leaves, which signifies for the New York-based Hagen his nostalgia for autumn in Wisconsin. "Raking leaves seems endless, and the leaves seem slight and pointless," he says. "But it's a necessary cleansing rite to prepare for seasonal renewals." The final verse setting is We're All Here, which is a frontispiece from James Fenimore Cooper's novel Wyandotte, a tale of colonial life similar to Cooper's better known The Deerslayer. "In my setting of Cooper's poem," Hagen says, "I progressed from a feeling of remembrance and mourning to acceptance and ultimately back to the joyous spirit of Hopkins' poem."

— Kevin Lynch, The Capital Times, 11/22/02

It occurred to both composer Daron Hagen and me that Driving to Normal would be a great title for a piece. The subject came up because Hagen, 41, was driving to Normal, Ill., from New York City, when I caught up with him for an interview via cell phone. Hagen, a Brookfield native long transplanted to New York, was passing through Pennsylvania on his way to a four-day residency at Illinois State University. He sensibly pulled off the road to talk, so the headline on this story won't be "Crashing on the Way to Normal," which is also not a bad name for a piece. After his stay in central Illinois, he drove to Milwaukee for the premiere of his We're All Here. Present Music and the Brookfield Central Chamber Choir and Women's Chorus will perform it today at Present Music's annual Thanksgiving program. Brookfield Central's Phillip Olson will conduct. Olson also raised funds for the commission. 

"I remember singing in the choir at Brookfield Central," the composer said. "This piece is no harder than what we sang then. If I were writing for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I'd have written the same piece. I've never simplified for anyone." He laughed as he continued: "Of course, I suspect that they don't like me so much right now. Phil told me that this has been a workout for the kids -- they really had to learn the difference between a half-step and a whole step!"

The piece is autumnal in tone and puts music to three poems: Gerard Manley Hopkins' Pied Beauty ("Glory to God for dappled things, For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow, For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim . . . "); Robert Frost's Gathering Leaves ("Spades take up leaves/No better than spoons/And bags full of leaves/Are light as balloons . . ."); and James Fennimore Cooper's We Are All Here ("We are all here!/Father, mother/Sister, brother,/All who hold each other dear . . . "). Olson and his students chose the poems, at Hagen's request. He is delighted with their literary value, their musical qualities, and their fitness to the occasion. The choral part of the opening section involves a slow, sustained counterpoint in which the voices slither over each other in half and whole steps. The aggregates of those voices are complexes of dissonances that shift constantly in the pile up. A marimba, meanwhile, alternates between simple triads that contain all the notes in the choral part.

"It's a way to get a complex harmonic palette with simple materials," Hagen said. "They're singing in stepwise motion, and the glue is in the mallet part. The singers can cling to it. The real melodic movement is in the instruments." Gathering Leaves is couched in floating whole-tone scales. "Whole tones float -- there's my cliche for the day," the composer said, laughing in ready admission that they'd been floating about since Debussy's day. Composers continue to use these tricks for good reasons -- to capture, as Frost's poem does, the lightness of autumn leaves and the simple pleasure of standing among them. The final movement begins in chorale fashion, with voices singing in straightforward harmony in E major and moving together. But after the first phrase, it begins to transform into a new version of the material from the first movement. 

Hagen, like most composers, enjoys the engineering aspects of music - the processes of creating comprehensible structure and solving the problems of form. He emphasized that all of that is the means, not the end. His recent (and second) marriage, to composer Gilda Lyons; their decision to have children (not an easy one in the always economically dicey serious music business); and Sept. 11 have had an effect on his work. "I've been been turning down a lot of commissions," he said. "I've only been doing things I really believe in. I changed the way I see music functioning in my life."

"Music doesn't mean anything per se," Hagen continues, "but a composer can create a musical space that invites people to think about serious issues." In that oblique way, he believes that music can be political. In his mind, the last movement of We're All Here is a memorial to friends who have died of AIDS and about the inclusion and welcoming into the human family of those who have been shunned.

— Tom StriniMilwaukee Journal Sentinel11/23/02

We're All Here is an ineffably beautiful new choral work.

— Kevin LynchThe Capital Times3/24/02

(Banner photo: stock leaves)

Frank Lloyd Wright Unitarian Meeting House, Madison, WI

The Brookfield Central High School Chorus

About the premiere

Madison, Wisconsin, 23 October 2002

As an undergraduate in 1980, I had made chamber music in the sanctuary of the Frank Lloyd Wright Unitarian Meeting House in Madison, Wisconsin where now I sat. 

I looked around the chapel. Wright wrote that he designed it to suggest “the wings of a bird in flight.” Actually, to me the upward sweep of the roof toward the stone rostrum resembled more the hull of a ship approaching a glass prow. Massive picture windows looked out at trees covered in orange, red, and yellow leaves. The seating was designed so that parishioners faced each other as well as the minister, enhancing a sense of community. Like the Big Cedar House in which I grew up, it was heated by hot water circulating through pipes imbedded in the concrete floor — at the time a construction innovation.

Phil began We're All Here, the third movement. Fifty or so teenagers sang:

“We are all here! / Father, mother, / Sister, brother….,”

I do not sentimentalize music making: my responsibility is to listen to my music critically. But I felt odd and I wanted to understand why. I closed my eyes and tried to enter the moment. Once I let go, I began feeling dislocated in time. It was as though I had just taken a bite of a sonic petite Madeleine.

“All who hold each other dear / Each chair is filled—we’re all at home.”

My cheeks were wet. Eyes closed, I took off my glasses and wiped them on my shirt. When I opened them, I saw an Impressionistic painting of the chorus in which I sang as a boy.

“Bless, then, the meeting and the spot;”

Of course, they sounded like us. Of course, they looked like a drawing of a photograph of us. The feeling of disorientation intensified.

“For once be every care forgot;”

I felt slightly giddy. I put on my glasses and searched their faces. Some were harder, some were softer, some were new, and some were composites. Of course, they looked and sounded familiar: I had composed something for the teenage children of my high school classmates.

“Let gentle Peace assert her power, / And kind Affection rule the hour;”

I felt my brother Britt to my left and Mother to my right. Familiar ghosts — my grandparents, my uncles, Norman, Jim — began filling the pews — sort of a spectral episode of This is Your Life. I thought of Louis Sullivan singing “So much so,” in Shining Brow, of poor doomed Morales singing “again and again,” in Bandanna

“We’re all — all here.” 

The sanctuary rang with their healthy young voices. “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength,” I recalled the 8th Psalm and shivered involuntarily. With each repetition of the words “We’re all here,” I felt like a feverish child whose hair is being stroked by his mother.

“Enough,” I heard myself say, aloud. “Enough, now.”

We’re All Here was intended to serve as an agent of consolation and healing. I never dreamed that I might be one of its recipients. Sentimental the music may be, mediocre the poetry may be; but, if after I die there were to be held a modest memorial service, I would like it to end with this movement. 

 -- Daron Hagen

Phillip Olson

Phillip Olson

Present Music

Present Music