Don’t set Frost

April 25, 2011

Ned Rorem told a class of young composers to avoid taking their favorite poem and ruin it by setting it to music.

Many of us have sungĀ Randall Thompson‘s “Frostiana” a multi-movement choral work based on the poetry of Robert Frost. I suspect Randall and Robert’s royalties were fairly good from this work, and would assume a split of 50-50, but I do not know that for a fact.

Young Robert Frost

In Robert Frost’s will there must be some strong language about exactly who may set his poetry. The decisions are in the hands of the Henry Holt Co. last I heard. I first learned of the Frost estate’s frosty reception to composers when I tried to publish one of the Yelton Rhodes composers who had composed an all-Frost multi-movement piece. I contacted the estate and learned that I could only publish his poetry that was in the public domain, and that we absolutely could not publish anything else. I asked what composers HAD received permission, expecting someone very famous. “Maria von Trapp” was the answer. “Oh THAT famous composer” I mumbled to myself. Yes, from the von Trapp family.

Fast forward to choral music’s new golden boy, Eric Whitacre. Turns out Eric had a similar problem with the Frost Estate. So Eric decides to hire a lyricist/poet to replace the original Frost poem vowing never to set RF again.

Gee, I just imagine those folks at the Frost Estate sitting around a table and frowning at every request like the Skeksis from the Dark Crystal.

Or did Robert not like sharing royalties with a composer? Or did he give permission to a “bleep blop” composer whose setting he loathed? and on his death bed decreed that no composer shall ever set my words again? We may never know. But in the mean time, I advise all composers to be careful about setting any poetry that you do not have permission to set. Performing, recording and publishing are all separate agreements as well, so don’t assume that permission to set implies permission for anything else. Cuz if ol’ Eric can’t get permission to set Frost, no one can.

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