by Hunter Bennett
Written for American Art Song and Twentieth-Century Tonality (THYU 368, Fall 2012)
Libby Larsen’s song cycle Songs from Letters is sung from the perspective of Calamity Jane, the famous American frontierswoman. The text for this collection of five songs was taken from letters written by Calamity to her daughter, Janey. Within each song, Larsen recycles motifs from previous movements as connective tissue. The fifth song of the set, “All I Have,” not only recycles motifs but uses them to produce a strong sense of sentimentality. Larsen restates these recycled motifs in conjunction with a text highlighting the sentimental nature of Calamity’s letters. The letter Larsen chose for the final song was taken from much later in Calamity’s life than the others, naturally lending itself to a sentimental tone. In addition to the sen-timental text, “All I Have” opens with a flurry of motifs used in the previous songs:
The first measure consists of the “Like Your Father’s” motif, originally heard in m. 5 of song #1: The second measure begins with a transposed “Bell” motif, originally heard in m. 4 of song #1: The first two notes of m. 2 begin the “Like Your Father’s” motif, but over the barline, the pitch set [0,1] is heard. This pitch set features prominently in song #3, first heard in m. 3. Larsen uses the pitch set in transposed and inverted forms, playing with the intervals all related to the half-step:
Once again, the first two notes of “Like Your Father’s” return after the downbeat of m. 3 but transition instead to another motif, the “Music Box,” origi-nally heard in the first two measures of song #3. Just the first bar of the motif is present-ed here in song #5, over beats 3 and 4 in m. 3. The next bar follows a similar formula, but quotes just one beat of this “Music Box” motif. Bars 5-8 present a new texture but are still motivically derived. The first chord in m. 5 contains four notes: [A, D, A#, and F#]. Compare these notes to the inner two chords of the “Wedge” motif: [D, A, Bb (enh. A#), and Gb (enh. F#)]. Song #5, m. 5 “Wedge”
As Larsen generally keeps her motivic references on the same pitch classes they are initially presented with, this connection seems more significant than it would initially appear. The chord appears again two bars later in m. 7, and the two are linked in the middle (m. 6) by a chord created by a near-parallel shift downwards by a major 3rd. While bar 8 contains the “Like Your Father’s” motif untransformed, the piano part in bar 9 continues with motivic transformation. It is reminiscent of the first measure of the “Music Box” heard first at the beginning of the third song, with the same rhythmic feel and melodic contour but presented with new notes. The F and Bb used as grounding in the bass remind us of the comforting “Bell” motif, where they provided a similar grounding effect in the right hand instead.
If bars 1-4 consist exclusively of motifs quoted verbatim, and the following four bars consist of new material created from old motifs, the music is on a path away from the familiar and into new territory. It is as if the final song starts with a sentimental looking-back on the previous songs (Calamity’s life, perhaps), steeped in the motifs of yesteryear. Over the course of the first eight bars, Larsen transitions from “sentimental” (previously-heard or taken from previously-heard) material to new material, created in the present. Starting on beat 2 in m. 9, Larsen presents the first entirely new material of the song, emphasized as the first vocal entrance:
This motif (“I Am Going Blind”) appears three times in the movement at key structural moments. This first time it appears, it serves as the spark to move the song forward, not just quoting old material. It is also the first entrance of the vocalist. The motif hides in the shadows for a while and re-appears again at the climax of the movement, with the same text (m. 31). It is in a different key, but the text helps affirm the connection. “I Am Going Blind” appears once more in the song, in m. 34. This is the turning point in the song, following the building outburst of the previous bars (mm. 22-23), when calm and sentimentality take over. From here on, there is no building up like there has been previously in the songs, characterized by upwards sequential figures, ,and the dynamic remains relatively quiet with no marked crescendos. For the “I Am Going Blind” motif, it would seem that the third time is the charm.
The fifth song, “All I Have,” is constructed almost entirely using the textures and motifs of the previous songs. In fact, the final song introduces only two entirely new ideas. Past the first eight measures, nearly everything is motivically derived. The “Music Box” and “Bell” motifs are heard over and over again. Their juxtaposition in the vocal line of mm. 41-42 brings to light the loose connection each of these motifs has as an inversion of the other. The chord derived from the “Wedge” motif appears quite frequently, and the “Wedge” itself appears in m. 18. Bar 39 conjures up the Ab Lydian world established in the very first measure of the first song, as if summating the life of the piece, sentimentally tying Calamity’s present in the fifth song to her past in the first song.
Although the vast majority of the last song consists of motifs established in the previous songs, there is one final piece of new material to examine, and it is both textural and motivic. Two chords, AbM and DbM7, sounded in succession, create a sense of sentimentality that is further emphasized by the text “All I have left”:
First heard in m. 16, The Ab chord in this “All I Have” motif feels strongly grounded as a tonal center for several reasons. It structurally accompanies the beginning of a vocal phrase, and it is immediately coupled with a tempo change. These two chords are the first functional tertian harmonies heard in the entire song cycle, which draws significant attention to them. Larsen saves this valuable tool for the last movement, and introduces the chords at a sentimental moment in the text (“All I have left are these pictures of you”). The use of the DbM7 chord in particular evokes similar sentimental feelings for unidentifiable reasons. We can only compare the use of Db to some of the masters of emotion like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Tchaikovsky uses Db major to create feelings of longing and sentimentality in the Love Theme of his Romeo and Juliet; Rachmaninoff uses it to similar effect in Variation XVIII of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43. In any case, Db has a strong connection to the world of longing and love. The use of it in the “All I Have” motif, centered in Ab major, connotes these feelings to great effect.
The fact the “I Am Going Blind” and “All I Have” motifs are the only new material presented in the final song help draw the cycle to a close. A strong tonality is finally established by the “All I Have” motif. The text “I am going blind,” along with that motif’s stagnant nature, creates a feeling of old age and the closeness of closure. These two elements are not masked by a slew of new material, so they stick out as the main qualifying characteristics of this song. The fact that the rest of the material is all recycled motifs could hint at a genesis for the “All I Have” motif. Perhaps these two chords serve the same function as all of the recycled motifs in the final song, in a more subtle form; they, too, look back to the past, but with music only describable as sentimental emotion.
Larsen, Libby. Songs from Letters: Calamity Jane to her Daughter Janey, 1880-1902. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.