GRIER: 5 Songs for Children (1962/1999). Sneezles (1972).
4 Songs from
A Shropshire Lad (1955). 2 Songs from Emily Dickinson (1961).
Spoon River (2004-07). Reflections of a Peacemaker (2007).
Michelle Areyzaga (soprano); Elizabeth Norman (soprano); Scott Ramsay (tenor);
Robert Sims (baritone); Alexander Tall (baritone); Levi Hernandez (baritone);
Welz Kauffman (piano); Anne Bach (oboe); Tina Laughlin (percussion); William
Billingham (piano); John Goodwin (piano); Chicago Children's Choir/Josephine
CEDILLE CDR 90000 112 (F) (DDD) TT: 67:45.
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A find. Lita Grier studied with Lukas Foss and Roy Harris. Her early work
garnered both prizes and good word-of-mouth. Around 1962, she gave up her
composition career, probably because she couldn't face either the attacks
against neoclassicism in general from the serialist wing or the animus
against women composers in the not-missed days before the feminist movement.
She went into various other careers including arts management and broadcasting.
I couldn't find an entry for her in my edition of Grove. When the pendulum
swung back and requests for works began to come in, she returned to composition.
This compilation of songs shows Grier early to late. I don't hear much
of a difference, but I attribute that to the large gap in her composing
activity. I'm not that big on many of the songs, for various reasons, but
I like Grier and want to hear more.
Some of the songs use terrible texts. I've never cared for Mattie Stepanek's
poetry, although his advocacy and his death at roughly 14 from muscular
dystrophy certainly makes for a compelling, useful life. His poetry I consider
blush-making junk. Thick whimsy exercises a fatal attraction on Grier (she
actually set A. A. Milne's cringeworthy Sneezles as well). To be fair,
she wrote it for her own child, sick at the time, and the music itself
is delightful, with elegantly subtle parts for percussion. However, many
of these settings come off as songs, which I think a tribute to Grier's
She certainly has craft and the gift of surprise. Often I found her leading
me down certain paths almost to the point of predictability, only to turn
to someplace completely unexpected. The early Housman settings are good,
but I kept thinking of other, better settings by Butterworth, Moeran, Leichtling,
and (of course) Vaughan Williams. As regular readers know, I also don't
get into most of the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Grier sets two of the poet's
most popular pieces: "I cannot live with you" and "I taste
a liquor never brewed." I've yet to understand the attraction of the
latter poem to composers. It's essentially a riddle (answer: "oysters")
and really doesn't get much beyond that. Nevertheless, Grier makes things
interesting. She breaks up the general monotony of Dickinson's meters, à la
Aaron Copland's Dickinson cycle. She finds an idiom that somewhat relates
to nineteenth-century parlor music, like Gordon Getty's White Election,
but she doesn't go as far as Getty. The music here doesn't abstract or
distill the earlier idiom; it suggests.
Although I admired the choral writing of Reflections of a Peacemaker, my
favorite work on the CD comes down to Songs from Spoon River. It's a dramatic
cycle for several solo singers and two pianos. Perhaps Brahms's Liebeslieder lurked in the back of her mind. Edward Arlington Robinson's cycle, based
on The Greek Anthology, has the ghosts of a small Illinois town
speaking about their lives and the significance or lack of it in their
fatalism is all over these verses: We all die; most of us die unhappy;
death becomes for most a soothing, endless sleep. The poems Grier selects
generally run long, in free verse, to boot. For a composer, the problem
is how to keep from rambling, since the structure isn't apparent. To deal
with this, you can follow either of two general strategies: follow the
twists and turns, without "Mickey-Mousing," and hope that your
music doesn't fall apart; find a structure that won't do violence to the
poem. Grier takes the first road, building in coherence through a sophisticated
motific development and a genuinely dramatic touch. Her ability to characterize
individuals insures that the dead don't sound all alike. Of course, specifying
different voices helps. This work prompted me to consider Grier as something
other than a miniaturist. You sense a big nature behind the notes. I'd
love to hear her tackle something bigger. Lukas Foss and Roy Harris, I'm
sure, did their work well.
The singers are professional, though not stellar quality, with one significant
exception. It often sounds like a recital of very good students. However,
Michelle Areyzaga stands out as a singer who reaches out to a listener
without resorting to hokey vocal clichés. The various pianists accompany
sensitively, giving the singers room. The Chicago Youth Choir is so good
of its type that most of the time it fooled me into thinking it an adult
choir. Occasionally, however, you heard the youth of the voices. They certainly
go a long way to putting over the Stepanek. Çedille, a label devoted
to Chicago composers and performers, should issue more Grier.
S.G.S. (May 2010)