Week 5: Friday, April 20, 2018
“Stepping Westward” by Libby Larsen
Text by Denise Levertov
SAA w div, oboe, handbells, marimba
“Stepping Westward,” composed in 1995, using text by author Denise Levertov from Poems 1960-1967, focuses on pioneer and frontierswomen from the Old West, sharing their tales of sacrifice, hardship, loss, joy, and independence. Larsen’s fascination with women’s views of the West continues from earlier works, such as “Settling Years,” “Songs from Letters,” and “Ghost of an Old Ceremony.” Each of these works studied various aspects of the physical and emotional conditions of women during the westward movement across the American frontier. Larsen once again brings women to the forefront of her composing, dedicating conscious time and effort into the creating of works honoring the women that paved the way in the new frontier of the West. The voices, along with marimba, oboe, and handbells, tell the story of strong West-bound women through their own perspectives, emphasizing the individuality and humanness of the women.
In this work, the opening text is set in the soprano voice, fairly subdued as well as limited in range, with the alto voices, marimba, and handbells providing an almost hypnotic, harmonic support. This changes at m26, when the ostinato ends and all three voices share the text “If woman is inconstant, good.” Larsen goes on to repeat the word “good” a second time and sets both as homophonic accented notes, as if to say Good…Great! The second “good” is also the first time we hear the sopranos move beyond their previously limited range. These compositional adjustments to range, texture, and dynamics positively support the notion of woman as a changing creature, able to adapt to her surroundings as she pleases, instead of keeping within the confines of a pre-established stereotype.
Larsen next supplants the perception of women through compositional changes in tonality. The work is generally in an A major space, though the diatonic triad in that key is rarely sung as a unit. Larsen’s first departure from the amorphous tonality is heard in m116-119, when F major makes a distinct, root position appearance. In this short section, Larsen emphasizes the difference between “glad to be…what?…woman” and “glad to be…who?…myself.” The former asks the question “what (am I)?,” putting the answer of woman on the same footing as an object, a thing. This answer is given as a hushed, subito piano. The latter question, the more personal of the two, “who (am I)?” is answered as myself, set as forte, complete with accents on both syllables in all voices. These changes in tonality and texture underscore the emphasis on women as a ‘who,’ as a person, rather than a ‘what,’ a possession or an object.
In terms of instrumental accompaniment, there is no piano line, though in rehearsal the accompanist could read handbells & marimba in the left hand, and oboe in the right. The oboe line is virtuosic – a strong player is needed. The handbell part works well with five ringers, and could be done by well-practiced students.
The vocal ranges for all parts are fairly concise. There are a brief few notes of soprano solo, and some divisi within the soprano melody line, but not much.
Rhythmically, there are two-against-three rhythms, but these are repetitive and easily grasped. No meter changes, but many tempo changes, based on the text. There are frequent close harmonies, but the motivic repetition of these harmonies eases learning. Some segments are imitative, which can be used in rehearsal to strengthen part independence among singers, without having an entire song which is imitative.
|Composer:||Libby Larsen (www.libbylarsen.com)|
|Date of Composition:||1995|
|Text Source/Author:||Denise Levertov (1923-1997)|
|Date of Text:||1960-1967|
|Subject(s):||Women’s history, courage, perseverance, strength|
|Voicing Details:||SAA, with occasional divisi in S|
|Accompaniment:||Oboe, handbells, marimba|
|Tempo:||120, with flexibility|
|Further descriptions and details, including composer’s notes, audio, perusal score, and purchasing:|
Until next week!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is associate professor of music, Director of Choral Activities, and music department chair at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.
Some source material for this week’s blog post was taken from my doctoral dissertation, “By Women, For Women: Choral Works for Women’s Voices Composed and Texted by Women.” https://tinyurl.com/ydeyuyk8