Songs from a Quaker Heart

by Pamela J. Marshall

for SATB, piano

Duration ~13.5 min.


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“Songs from a Quaker Heart” began with my discovery of Marian Kaplun Shapiro’s poetry. When I started working with Barry Singer, Director of the Arlington-Belmont Chamber Singers, on this commission, I looked for material by a local poet. I found Marian’s poetry book “Players in the Dream, Dreamers in the Play” in the local authors collection at Cary Library in Lexington, MA. These short poems lent themselves to developing musical textures reflecting mood as well as the text. Quiet, leaves, seasons — these recurring motifs led me to select five of her poems. Two are from the book, and the others are from her unpublished manuscripts.

Some of the poems are very short. #2 “Life, In Conjunction” has eight different words, repeated. I used this to create a pattern and gave each of the eight words a different pitch.

Another short poem is #4 “Spring Sunlight”. Marian has encapsulated the idea of growth/decay in just a few words. But each line is so short! and the contrasts need to confront each other. It took me a while to find a musical treatment lasting longer than 30 seconds. My setting dwells on each pair of contrasts, developing a mood and texture for each pair. Then there’s a shape-shifting in the last two lines as the rhythm changes and the action spills into the last line, which I highlight with a surprise chord change.

The poem #3 “Leaves” feels both nostalgic about the passing of the seasons and angry about the disruptions of bad weather. As the text proceeds from nostalgia into frustration, I begin to set the words as a spoken chant, instead of a nostalgic song.

In #1 “Quaker Meeting” the key thought of the poem is quiet serenity. I gave it a long introduction to establish the quiet mood. In addition to the poem’s words, Marian provided a paragraph of text about the awesome experience of a Quaker meeting. This is what the singers whisper. My challenge was shaping a musical climax, in the middle of the quiet, for the brief, transcendent line of “like the spirit, free to come in”.

Finally, #5 “House Oratorio” is just plain fun. Singing appliances simply needed to be set to music. Each appliance gets a particular melody, layered in an ever-changing texture. Are they talking to each other, or just the soundscape of a house?

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