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Finding music in the life and letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay

I first became aware of the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay after composer Alison Willis set one of her poems (“The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver”) for Juice Vocal Ensemble, a group I co-founded with fellow singers and composers, Kerry Andrew and Anna Snow. The collection from which this particular poem is taken won Millay the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 and helped to further consolidate her blossoming career, not only as a poet but also as a writer of plays and short stories, receiving mass-recognition under the pseudonym, Nancy Boyd.

Millay studied piano and theatre from a young age, and made her first stage appearances performing her poetry and playing the piano. In 1927, she wrote the libretto for an opera, with music composed by Deems Taylor. It was Millay that decided the subject matter for the opera, choosing an English Medieval legend, keen to explore the Anglo-Saxon roots of American settlers. The King’s Henchman premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on 17 February 1927, and received critical acclaim. This in itself seems a particularly striking achievement given the lack of opportunities for female creatives by the same institution not only during Millay’s lifetime, but on into the twenty-first century too: the Metropolitan Opera commissioned their first ever operas from female composers, Mizzy Massoli and Jeanine Tesori, as recently as 2018.

Edna’s poetic writing style was fairly formal in that she followed the form, rhyme, and meter of traditional sonnets. However, she harnessed the strength of that tradition and used it as a scaffold on which to explore and challenge societal perceptions of women, feminism, and sexuality. It was in researching her poetry that I stumbled across her letters. In the, now sadly out of print, book, The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, you can read all about her love of music, her thoughts on politics and sexuality, and about her relationships. Her literary genius has always been rather overshadowed by the stories of her “risqué” personal life, but rather than setting her poems, I found myself drawn to the content of these letters, the writing style of which were far more modern and less rhythmically confining.

Choosing a text suitable for setting to music can be a time-consuming and thoroughly engrossing process, and one that often reflects internal and external influences. At the time of researching a text to set for my new choral work, Love Letter, I was angered by the increasingly negative anti-LGBTQ+ agenda in the US, the rise of the far right across the world, and the news of many countries turning back the clock on issues of women’s rights and equality. Due to the pandemic, there are now certainly even more political and socioeconomic parallels between what was happening during Edna’s lifetime and what is happening now, and during this time I have found the succinct beauty and honesty of her letters incredibly comforting.

One paragraph from her letter to her lover Arthur Ficke really appealed to me:

“It doesn’t matter with whom you fall in love, nor how often, nor how sweetly. All that has nothing to do with what we are to each other, nothing at all to do with You and Me.”

Musically, I wanted to match the simplicity and clarity of this text. I didn’t want to get in the way of it, but simply for it to feel natural, uplifting, and joyous. The choral music world is such a rich tradition and brings communities of people together, and yet sometimes the texts we sing about regarding love are confined to those of religious significance. My hope is that the freedom Edna so delighted in and celebrated in her life resonates with others and provides a moment to acknowledge the importance of acceptance and equality in love and relationships in modern life.

As Olivia Gatwood observes: “So much of Millay’s work realizes that we don’t have a choice which world we end up in, and because of that, we have no choice but to somehow make it our own.”

Image credits: Edna St. Vincent Millay in Mamaroneck NY, 1914, by Arnold Genthe. (Genthe photograph collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

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