Before She Became Fire
Kathryn Leemhuis, mezzo-soprano
Samuel Martin, piano
In this album, we present a collection of remarkable compositions for mezzo-soprano voice and piano, showcasing the artistry of contemporary women composers who have graced the current classical music scene. Through these distinctive works, we delve into the intricacies of life, the bittersweet embrace of mortality, the resonance of legacy, and the strength born from vulnerability.
Lori Laitman’s two-song cycle, And Music Will Not End, sets the stage for our exploration of the human experience. The music weaves a tapestry of emotions as we contemplate existence, mortality, and the timeless question of legacy. While not part of the two-song cycle, a third song, titled “Presence,” is included in our performance as it, too, projects powerful themes of life and loss. The composer’s music as a whole invites listeners to ponder the cycle of life through the lens of the infinite, resonating with themes that transcend time and space.
Judith Cloud’s cycle, The Secret History of Water, draws inspiration from the delicate cadence of poetry and the captivating voice of female lyricist Sylvia Curbelo. The eight melodies ebb and flow, mirroring the lyrical intricacies that tell stories of strength and vulnerability. The poignant lyrics reveal the multifaceted nature of womanhood, capturing the essence of resilience amid challenges. This work is a tribute to the beauty of words, music, and the indomitable spirit of women.
Melissa Dunphy’s Four Poems of Nikita Gill embraces the contemporary landscape, speaking directly to the lives of young women today. Through the prism of diverse experiences, the four songs resonate with the myriad emotions that define this generation's journey. In an era marked by the Me Too movement, these compositions bear witness to the progress that has been made while acknowledging the challenges that persist. They stand as a testament to the strength and resilience of women in overcoming adversity.
In celebrating the voices of these three remarkable female composers, we underscore the importance of providing opportunities for creators who have historically been marginalized. Our album is a testament to the richness of female perspectives, the depth of their artistic expression, and the beauty of their musical narratives. By amplifying their voices, we contribute to a more inclusive and diverse musical landscape.
This album invites listeners to reflect on life, death, legacy, and the diverse journeys that shape us as individuals and as a society. Through the powerful marriage of voice and piano, these compositions offer a window into the souls of the composers and the universal experiences they encapsulate. May this collection inspire contemplation, empathy, and appreciation for the limitless spectrum of the female experience.
Stream and Download
Before She Became Fire is available for streaming and download on all major platforms.
From the Composers
On And Music Will Not End:
In the summer of 2007, The Lyrica Society for Word-Music Relations commissioned this song cycle commemorate the 40th anniversary of the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. I chose these two unpublished poems to reflect on life, death and legacy.
Anne Ranasinghe was born Jewish in Germany. At 13, she was sent to England by her family and was the only one to survive the Nazis. She grew up alone, eventually married a Sri Lankan doctor, and after the war, moved to Sri Lanka where she lived out her life. This poem reflects on the mystery and timelessness of the universe as well as Anne's realization that her end was near. For me, it is reminder that the world goes on, and we are part of this infinity. The song has an air of mystery, created by a repetitive figuration in the accompaniment that runs throughout.
John Wood wrote A Pastoral Lament for the funeral of his colleague, composer Keith Gates. The poem’s message of love and grief is mixed with an appreciation for an enduring legacy. The opening musical idea is derived from my musical setting of “Sweet, sweet singing shepherd boy” and the resulting melodic cell appears throughout in various guises. To underscore the notion that “music will not end,” the piano takes the theme from the voice near the end of the song, and the phrase hangs unfinished, seemingly in mid-air.
I met Marcia Menter and Susan de Sola at The West Chester University Poetry Conference in the early 2000s. But it would be the summer of 2020 before I collaborated with Susan — choosing her humorous poem, A Party for Kevin (about a pet pig), for a Lyric Fest commission. We developed a wonderful friendship through emails in those early days of the pandemic. Sadly, soon after the song’s premiere, Susan went into a coma and died from lymphoma on October 28, 2021.
Marcia was Susan’s close friend and wrote Presence after her death. She sent me the poem in December of 2021. With Marcia’s permission, I set this haunting poem to music to honor Susan, finishing in January 2022. A low, almost funereal piano accompaniment opens the song, setting up the dark atmosphere for the story to unfold.
On The Secret History of Water, Set I:
As a composer of art song, I am particularly inspired by the architecture of a poem, the sounds, and meaning of a word, its rhythmic power. I have set poems by several women poets, including Margaret Atwood, Betty Andrews, Silvia Curbelo, and Kathleen Raine. I am attracted to the voice of the female poet: her strength and sensitivity, but also her vulnerability. But I have set texts by male figures as well, even using quotes that sum up their masculine identities.
I met Cuban-American Silvia Curbelo when we were both artists in residency at the Seaside Institute. When she shared a few of her poems, I was immediately taken by the melodic flow of her words, the imagery, and her strong delivery.
The process of setting words to music often begins as an experiment in gesture. This usually starts as a “cell” or “germ” that has the potential for heightening and intensifying the meaning and power of the words. Although a poem may arouse an initial emotion, it is only when I have finished the composition that I know whether or not I have captured the true essence of that poem. If the listener reacts positively and is engaged, I know I have created something special, something that is perhaps universal.
On Four Poems of Nikita Gill:
The song cycle Four Poems of Nikita Gill sets poetry by British-Indian Sikh author Nikita Gill, who first drew attention for her works by publishing them on Instagram and Tumblr. Her writing often draws on her experiences as a woman of color, exploring themes such as trauma recovery, mental illness, feminism, and identity.
Four Poems of Nikita Gill was first commissioned in 2018 by Dr. Carol Lines at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, for a premiere performance by three of her voice students. Each singer chose one of Nikita’s poems to be set to music, but the three students then put forward a joint proposal to add a fourth poem to the cycle, “Me Too,” as all of them connected strongly with the words and theme—this song is written for three a cappella voices so the singers could perform it together.
By chance, each of the poems chosen for the cycle uses a different pronoun perspective. “Sorcery” is in first person (“I”) and is an affirmation of self-acceptance and the importance of self-care; a mysterious melodic line in the piano becomes sly and knowing as a spell of healing is cast. “From the Ashes She Became” is in third person (“she”) and tells the phoenix-like story of a woman turning pain and exhaustion into strength, using imagery of rushing water and the desolate desert. “You Have Become a Forest” is in second person (“you”) and offers words of comfort and a celebration of growth to a Sondheim-esque melody, perhaps sung to a younger version of oneself. Finally, the protest anthem “Me Too” uses plural voice (“we”) and is woven into a canon, representing women’s individual voices joined together in solidarity and mutual empowerment.
Album Release Celebration
Kathryn Leemhuis, mezzo-soprano and Samuel Martin, piano
View the program from this performance.
Sunday, October 1, 2023 at 3:00 p.m.
Rock Hall Auditorium
1715 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19122