Process: A Video for Rose Styron

Rose Styron reads from
 

The poet Rose Styron was radiant as she stood and read her poem, Veteran’s Day, into a video camera. This was for a special, private recording that took place on Memorial Day weekend in collaboration with soprano Molly Conole, trumpeter John Schilling and me on piano at the West Tisbury Congregational Church. 

 

Rose is also a widely published author of articles on human rights, foreign policy, and mental health issues. At age 93 she is bracingly articulate and self-reflective. There is an ease about her and she brims with stories, told with relish and humor. When I asked her, over a post-video glass of wine, how she came to poetry, she said her first poem, published in her grade-school literary magazine, was deemed plagiarism by one teacher, who claimed no one Rose’s age could have written anything that sophisticated. Unfazed, Rose concluded, “If someone thinks I’m that good, guess I may as well keep going and write poetry for a living.”

Rose was inspired to write Veteran’s Day after walking with her family from her home in Vineyard Haven to the West Chop cemetery the day they buried her husband, the author William Styron, in 2006. Though Bill had been a veteran, Rose had no idea she would be greeted by men in uniform to give him a proper send-off, complete with a trumpeter playing Taps. Her poem captures her feelings of that day and that moment. 

 

Rose has written two versions of Veteran’s Day. The second was set to music for soprano, piano, and trumpet in 2018 by New York composer Joel Mandelbaum (and friend of Rose’s from New York’s Century Club) and performed for a benefit recital of art songs presented by Molly and me at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Vineyard Haven in October 2019. I live in Baltimore but I perform on the Island semi-regularly. Rose showed the score to Molly, with whom she was studying voice, when it was first composed. “I could see why Joel Mandelbaum was inspired to write his lovely music to accompany her moving words,” Molly said. “When Lisa contacted me about doing the benefit, near Veteran’s Day 2019, I knew I wanted to do this piece for Rose.”

 

The concert wasn’t recorded, so we discussed getting back together to tape Rose’s piece the next time I came to the Vineyard. We thought that would be soon, but then the pandemic happened. Nineteen months later, we’ve finally got it done. Other than driving to Boston for my mother’s funeral in September, this was my first road trip since pre-Covid days. It was to be my regular vacation week on the Island, which I missed last summer, and it just felt like it would be a lovely symbol of things getting back to normal if we could make the video during my stay. The West Tisbury Congregational Church could give us the weekend to rehearse and record in its space; Andy Herr was available to record. Our schedules miraculously aligned. 

 

It came together easily. Molly, John, and I did three takes of the music, and there were several of just Rose reading. Then Molly got to work editing. At first Rose read a slightly different version of her poem than the one set to music. “We all wondered whether that was going to work,” Molly said,” and then it suddenly occurred to me that this was one of those happy accidents. The focus of editing the project suddenly took on a new angle for me — the journey of a poet’s process. Here we had her, in her own voice, reading this early version, then the published one, and then we’d see how the poem inspired this wonderful composer to hear melody and harmony complementing it. Absolutely how creativity works! What a journey!”

 

“In setting the poem,” Mandelbaum said, “I wanted an interplay between the intense feeling of love that emerges from it and the emotional trauma of loss which all the hymnody of the occasion cannot completely suppress.” He put much care into the musical structure and cites Rose’s own excellent sense of form as a “wonderful guiding beacon for me.” It received its premier at the Century Club in April 2018.

 

The score setting includes quotations of bird calls, taps, hymns, and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Two irreconcilable fixed motives are woven into the trumpet part, both associated with funerals: Taps, and the opening of Mahler’s Symphony No.5. There are quietly dissonant pitch clashes between voice and piano, subtly placed throughout. There is a lot of word painting in the piece where the shapes, rhythms, and harmonies of the music directly reflect the text. It begins with an other-worldly piano introduction — a falling minor second in the right hand over a softly murmuring left hand, depicting the soaring of a “bluebird across the graveyard sky.” (The composer studied Audubon recordings to derive a bluebird’s cry motif.) A Buddhist prayer intonation and a bit of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot move it forward. The music rises to a stark, powerful climax as it depicts the young soldier, taken “too soon.” At the end, it returns to the opening texture, the orange breast of the bluebird “catching all the last bits of light.” 

It is a haunting, sensual work, with idiosyncratic rhythmic gestures and gorgeous foundational chords beneath a roving, dissonant melodic line. In resurrecting it, I discovered my relationship to it had deepened considerably. The notes were already there; I didn’t have to spend much time re-learning them. I’m actually glad we waited this long to record because it somehow went into my marrow bone in the interim. Perhaps this was because of everything we’ve been through with Covid; perhaps it had to do with my mother’s passing. And then hearing Rose read her poem with her rich, deep voice, and beautiful phrasing caused me to play even better.

John was also thrilled to reunite and make the video. “Given the inspiration for this song,” he said, “it was especially poignant to be recording it over Memorial Day with Ms. Styron present. To hear her read those words was very moving and inspiring. It was one of those moments as a musician where everything aligned to create something special.”

Molly concurred. “We all felt excited and honored to be a part of recording it for Rose. To be in this lovely little church with beautiful acoustics, where songs of love and lament have filled the space for almost 350 years, and on this cloud-covered day in the company of friends — it just felt right. Sometimes music making is magical, and this was one of those days.”

The other version of Veteran’s Day appears in Fierce Day, Rose’s latest of three volumes of poetry. In a review of Fierce Day for FriesenPress, poet Billy Collins writes:

“In this remarkable new collection, her first in over a decade, Rose Styron confronts the death of her husband — step by step — in jewel-like poems … Fierce Day is a lyric record of loss, and of the heart wrenching struggle to continue living in the shadow of grief, but not to move beyond grief so much as to make of grief an inescapable condition of love and continuing attachment … she transfigures the ineffable beauties of landscape, sky and sea, recasting mourning as resilience, a commitment to the life force which surges through these radiant lyrics.”

Reflecting on our 2019 performance at UUSMV, Molly remarked, “Little did I have any idea that a year from that date, as Rose and I sat reflecting, safely distanced and masked on her lawn, that all of the upheaval and losses of Covid-19 would have happened. Nor could we have predicted that I would lose my husband unexpectedly and prematurely from an aggressive brain tumor a mere 10 months later. So, there we sat, two widows, reflecting on the depth of meaning of her beautiful words, and how it had touched us both in different though profound ways.” And, she said, that’s what they finally accomplished this past Memorial Day weekend. A very fitting time for this journey to come full circle.”

Here’s the video.

Text to Veteran’s Day (song version):

 

Bluebird across the graveyard sky,

the burial begins —

 

the Buddhist prayer, 

the Christian hymn,

the singing swinging low again.

We lower your ashes carefully,

your son, your 

kin, strong love.

 

Then Taps.

And now the young marine is gazing up 

at bits of sky

through shovelfuls of fresh

rich earth, rose-strewn —

and now the eager young Marine 

is left alone

under a blanket of drying grass,

wet snow, and all these blossoms strewn

too soon.

 

Bluebird across our graveyard sky,

orange breast catching all the last bits of light,

sing that the burial begin. Sing.

 

 

A native of Quincy, Mass., pianist Lisa Weiss has been performing since age 7, when she made her solo debut with the Boston Pops Orchestra. She holds degrees in performance from the Yale School of Music (MM) and the Peabody Conservatory (DMA), as well as an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University. She is a Professor Emerita of Music at Goucher College in Maryland.

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