Letters from Abigail was composed in 2001 at the request of soprano Kristin Samuelson. The texts are drawn from the letters of Abigail Adams and they were edited and reshaped to form a song cycle by Sarah White. The words of Abigail Adams reveal a woman both sentimental and proud, defiant and brave, a real American hero.
The cycle is constructed as an emotional circle, symbolized by the heart, and the enduring friendship and love between Abigail and John Adams. The yearning to be reunited with her husband, John, that Abigail expresses in the first song, “Dear Friend,” and the open expression of her affection is captured in the lyrical melodic outpouring beginning with the ascending major 6th introduced by the piano (measure 1), answered by the soprano and cello in a free point of imitation (measures 4 and 7). This cell of notes [0,2,4,7], introduced in the R. H. of the piano in measures 1-2, permeates the first song, “Dear Friend.” The intervallic potential of this cell, yields triadic, quartal and added-note sonorities, and the pitch class field expands to outline B flat mixolydian (measures 1-3), with excursions into A flat lydian (measure 9), D flat lydian (measure 13) and F lydian (measure 15). There is also a brief excursion into A lydian (bar 23). The song ends back with a pitch centricity of B flat, narrowing down to the opening cell of notes (Bb, C, D, F). This widely ranging exploration of different tonal centers is a premonition of the chromatic circle of fifths progression that closes the song cycle in the final song.
Text painting in the first song includes the rippling triplet figure that descends at the line “The idea plays about my heart,” which is repeated in varied form in the soprano line, now accompanied by the cello playing agitated triplet tremolos at the line “May the like sensations enter thy breast.”
The emotional tone shifts in the second song, “Our Barbarous Foes,” which opens in an agitated manner in 5/8, with short syncopated added-note 7th chords, that are repeated at lines such as “Armed cutters fired upon our men” (measure 56-60). Syncopations and shifting cross accents between the cello and piano, along with scurrying triplet-embellished scales in the cello and piano (for example measure 43), help to paint a picture of a skirmish with the Red Coats. At measure 67, the arching and jagged vocal line paints a picture of “bullets flying in every direction.” This effect is accompanied by an erratic and unpredictable peppering of added note staccato chords in the piano.
This second song in the cycle belongs to the genre of through-composed songs that have a bipartite shift of mood and tone reflected in the formal structure itself. At measure 84, and following, Abigail reveals her horror and grief “Every week produces some horrid scene.” The meter changes to a steady 4/4 after a ritardando into this contrasting, slower, section that ends the second song. The mood shift from agitation to shock and despair is supported by a tonal shift to a pandiatonic greyness (all white notes at first), which becomes D mixolydian (measure 85) and then eventually at the end of the song, a somber F# aeolian.
Two short “interludes” follow. A somber cello solo with triple stops and a twisting chromatic line gravely introduces the lamenting recitative of a drought and the plight of the neglected cows, which becomes ironic and sardonic. Abigail seems to be mildly chastising her absent husband in this tongue-in-cheek vignette. The mock serious mood of the first interlude changes to a tone of parody and humor in the second interlude, which is on the topic of shortages due to the war. The boom-chick accompaniment of the piano makes this into an ironic drinking song “their Malt and Cider all gone.” This song is more tonal, but with unexpected harmonic twists, making it more of a “song” than a letter. The humorous mood of this second interlude is followed by a dramatic change of tone.
The third song, “Victory,” opens with the clangorous sound of bells announcing the end of the Revolution. The opening motive of the cycle, that emphasized the leap of a seventh, is now consolidated in a series of open 7ths, that descend, bell-like in the piano, along with triplets reminiscent of the scurrying in song number 2, “Our Barbarous Foes.” The compound meter (12/8) moves Abigail’s patriotic declamation “I could not exchange my country for the wealth of the Indies” along in an exciting and cacophonous manner, ending with an abrupt crash on an added-note seventh chord on D. This song contains one of the climactic moments emotionally, in measure 177, where Abigail proclaims her love of the newly born nation.
Song 4, “Remember the Ladies,” shows the more stalwart and feminist side of Abigail Adams. She urges her husband, now that victory has been won, to not forget the rights of “the wives” and to not subjugate women, in effect, demanding equal rights. This is an extraordinary letter coming at this time, and it shows an interesting shift from the other, more devoted, loving letters that precede it in this cycle. Abigail is tightly wound, and the open motive of a seventh, denoting the heart-felt friendship with her spouse in the first letter, and the joyous bells or victory in the previous song, is now contracted into dissonant and tense seconds (inverted sevenths) that expand tightly into thirds in a wedge-like manner reminiscent of Debussy’s Prelude “Footsteps in the Snow.” The trudging here is more of a stamping and fuming. The 5/4 meter increases the tension.
Echoes of the bell motive (open sevenths with added 4ths and 2nds) interrupt Abigail’s tirade (measure 187 etc.). Measure 228 contains the point of maximum tension in the song cycle, in which Abigail informs her husband that if women are not granted their due rights they will “foment a rebellion.” The clashing harmonies based on the expanding and gradually ascending seconds that open into thirds is accompanied by the added-note seventh chords in the most dissonant and tense section of the cycle. A slower tempo and calmer presentation of the same motivic material ends the song on a conciliatory note: “Give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender one of friend.” The idea of spouse as true friend brings us full circle, reopening the way to the last song, which recapitulates the loving feelings expressed in the opening of the cycle.
In the last song, “My Heart,” Abigail reflects on the fact that even though they were often separated, by space and idea, she still retains a perfect and beautiful reflection of the man she married and still loves in her heart. The heart idea is now represented by the opening motive contracted to a rising 5th, that announces the cycle of descending 5ths in the accompanying harmony. The song begins in C, but the tonalities keep circling down, passing the central tonality of Bb that opens the cycle twice, in 2 complete circles of fifths before finally resting reposefully on B flat in the final measure. Thus, the central idea of the cycle, the circulating heart, that purifies the emotions, is reflected in the harmonic structure that is hinted at in the first song, only to be fully stated in the last song.
March 5, 2009: Letters from Abigail was premiered at University of
Southern Illinois by soprano Sarah Wiggins, with David Lyons, piano, and
Alex Francois, cello. I attended the performance and rehearsals, and
gave a pre-concert lecture about the work. I also assisted Sarah Wiggins
in the preparation of a theoretical analysis of the work, which became
part of her Master's Thesis.