To Joy: Citations from the OED (2017)
SATB soli, piano 4-hands
Commissioned by Nell Slater for the Source Song Festival.
Premiere: August 7, 2017, Saint Paul, Minnesota, by Mary Wilson, soprano; Clara Osowski, mezzo-soprano; Jacob Christopher, tenor; Tyler Duncan, baritone; Arlene Shrut & Erika Switzer, piano
The Oxford English Dictionary, affectionately called “the OED” by its devotees, is the standard reference for anyone interested in the English language, its shades of meaning, and its evolution over time. The model for a miscellany for SATB with piano four-hands is naturally the Liebeslieder of Brahms. In creating my set of “joyous lieder,” I surveyed the OED’s capacious entry on Joy, first published in 1901, and followed the clues of the various citations to their respective sources. I frequently found that widening the focus yielded a more interesting text. I chose fourteen that range over five centuries. There are eight named poets, one anonymous poet, two Biblical authors, a dictionary entry, and excerpts from a sermon. Eight of the texts are secular, six sacred.
While To Joy is scored for four soloists, many of the movements suggest a larger, more universal voice, and a performance by chorus with soloists is also conceivable.
Consider this fourteen-movement work a journey rather than a joy-ride. Part I suggests that beauty is a way into joy, that “joy is the grace we say to God.” But earthly beauty is finite, and Part I closes ambiguously. Part II begins in chaos, and mocks then questions the whole endeavor. It concludes with a macaronic English carol in which secular and sacred collide but ultimately coexist cheerfully. Part III begins atop a hill with a boy’s song about a rapturous bike-ride. John Donne, ministering to his flock, counsels that “Joy is the nearest representation of heaven itself to this world.” If beauty opens into joy, joy may be a door to eternity. And while a dictionary may define how a word has been used in the past, its future meaning has yet to be written.
Elie Wiesel was once asked whether he leaned more toward hope or despair. “When I am despairing, I choose hope,” Wiesel replied. “When I am terribly hopeful, I lean toward despair.” In uneasy times, the same approach may apply to joy. In this work, I choose joy.
–David Evan Thomas, May 2017