Letters From The Great Lost Cause

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Composed in 2009, at the request of soprano Lorraine Ernest, this song cycle has an interesting history. Ms. Ernest asked me to compose something that made a statement against war. I was already working on the first of a series of settings of Robert Frost’s poetry at that time. I looked for Frost poems that expressed an anti-war sentiment. One poem I came upon, The Flood, could be interpreted as being about war. I set that particular poem along with five other Frost poems that I thought made an interesting cycle. Some of the poems were more about peace than war, which I felt was one of the best ways to express what the commissioner of the work was after.

*Listen*

Soon after completing the cycle, I was distressed to learn that, after many years of allowing composers access to these poems, the Frost Estate is now demanding that the poems not be set to music.  I decided to make medicine out of poison and I set about finding new words to my already existent songs. I decided to try to give Ms. Ernest what she originally asked for and looked for Civil War letters and poems that I could make into a song cycle. This was something I had wanted to do for a long time, so the groundwork was already in place.  I finally decided that many of the original rhyme schemes and rhythms that were already fused with my notes were not easily discarded. I took phrases and ideas from existing Civil War poems and letters and adapted them into a fictional series of letters between two lovers that cover three years. The letters tell a story, and the entire cycle is unified by the anti-war sentiment. Some remnants of the Frost poems were impossible to erase (whose rhymes these are I think you’ll know), but they are certainly different enough to be considered reborn in quite a different way. The tone is deliberately sentimental and romantic, as is the case in the original Civil War material. Many letters and poems from this period were written by minimally educated writers who pledged their love, anger, faith and hope in simple poems and letters.

The dates and locations of the individual letters suggest a plausible story, but may not bear the scrutiny of a real Civil War enthusiast. The role of the woman and the man can be realized by a soprano, a tenor, or by alternating according to the viewpoint of the letter. In the case of a single performer, it would make dramatic sense if the singer were appearing to be both reading and writing letters. In the case of the two-performer option, they could each be writing, or they could each be reading, although if reading, if would have to be assumed that the last letter was sent by mistake. Perhaps the writing or reading posturing need not be discreet. I could imagine a performance in which it is ambiguous or changing throughout each letter.   


TEXT


Letters from the Lost Cause

 

1. October 10, 1862, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia

 

I am alone and frightened in the night.

I have cried when hearing your name,

in anguish and pain.

War has outlasted our last summer’s light.

I have prayed for you

in the coldest rain.

I have stopped by the graveyard

in Autumn’s heat,

and closed my eyes

with no one left to blame.

I have longed to hear

the sound of your feet.

 

If you had your way,

“No man would ever die.”

Yet you write that you are so certain

“We will never retreat.”

I want to ask you how you live a lie.

I pray for you and your useless “noble” fight.

A woman dare not speak against the war.

And yet, this cause is neither new nor right.

I cannot see a reason you must fight.

 

 2. July 2, 1863, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

 

Blood in the moonlight

glows red in the water.

Just when I think the cannon

have pounded fear from my mind,

some new onslaught makes clear

that our flank is not safe!

 

Daybreak gives way

to a round of slaughter.

My soul is lost.

I am owned now by the devil.

The Bringer of War himself

commands more blood.

My fear is rising like a flood.

 

Heads held high,

bullets fly, held high,

they fight a supernatural evil.

My comrades fall now,

those we cannot save.

If there was war

without death and blood

there would be no peace.

These are the “laws”

that imprison us,

without release.

 

It is now upon us,

the final wave!

But when it has swept by,

no more is gained.

My resolve is in doubt.

Fear cannot be contained.

 

3. November 10, 1863, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia

 

Whose paw prints these are I think I know.

His owner is in the graveyard now.

He will not feel the evening fire.

Instead, his coat fills up with snow.

This little friend will never hear

his master’s voice

nor feel his warm hands near.

Between the fallen trees

his home he makes.

He will be gone soon

without a tear.

He gives his collar bells a shake

to tell the world he’s now awake.

His only friends are sounds

of Snow Geese and the waves

down by the lake.

His nights are lonely,

so cold and hungry.

But I made a promise to a soldier:

I’ll keep this fallen hero’s friend.

His paws will warm me while I sleep.

 

4. February 14, 1864, Brandy Station, Virginia

 

I write to tell you

your locket never lies.

Inside I see our trust

will last us all our lives.

Unlike poor soldiers,

our love never dies.

 

But when I seek you

in the stars at night,

they cast, most times,

such cold and distant light.

I open the locket

so you remain in my sight.


5. May 8, 1864, Spotsylvania, Virginia


War is cruel,

the birds must fly away.

They dare not sing their songs today.

At dawn the blazing rifles roar.

The little birds cannot stay

in the nest anymore.

One bird is screaming,

clearly mad at me.

My weapon rests now,

mute on my knees.

But of course I can’t be quiet long

to listen to nature’s scolding song.

 

6. February 10, 1865, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia

 

End my sorrow,

spare me more misery!

Bring the final darkness.

Grant me oblivion!

Give my buried hero his rest.

Give to us an endless peace.

Pardon the sinners.

War is a crime that cannot be confessed.

We’ll find our peace now,

beneath the melting snow.

Now together,

my trust I will show.

But, whatever you do,

repent!

Vow not to spill more blood,

stop its flow now.

But whatever you do,

repent!

End the flow.

Tonight make it so!

Peace is what we now must sow!

Dead now by the devil’s tricks,

above his head a crucifix.

Take me to our wedding grave,

this fateful letter I’ll not save.

Burn, horrible pages I have read.

We will be reunited soon,

when I am dead.

Our endless nightmare

will live no more.


Selected Performances

April 25, 2010: Premiere, (with the original text), Lorraine Ernest, soprano, Gerald Steichen, piano, Margaret E. Petree College of the Performing Arts, Oklahoma City University, Oklahoma City, OK

Feb. 5, 2010: Performance of songs 2, 4 and 5 (with original text), Lorraine Ernest, soprano and Anne Weger, piano, Linda Holland and Friends Concert, Santa Barbara City College, Santa Barbara, Ca.

Feb. 20, 2010: Performance of songs 1, 3 and 6 (with original text), Lorraine Ernest, soprano, Gerald Steichen, piano, Montclair State University, John J. Cali School of Music, Montclair, NJ.

© John Carbon 2015