Thornton Wilder and Me

March 27, 2006

Thornton WilderIn 1983, I was commissioned by Robert Schunemann, owner of ECS Publishing and director of a choir in Cambridge, Massachusetts called “Cambridge Concentus” [or something like that] commissioned me to write three anthems for Ascension Sunday. He provided me with three texts, all of which I set and are now published by ECS Publishing in Boston. The second one had a text by a man described to me as a Unitarian minister, Amos Niven Wilder. The poem was called “His Spirit Lives” and the composition has the same title. I conducted the premiere with Bob Schunemann playing organ. End of story.

Or so I thought: fast forward to 2005, Amos’s son, Tappan (aka “Tappy”) Wilder called me to tell me that he was in the audience the day of that premiere and that he had always loved my setting of this father’s words. He told me that he and his sister were the executive to their uncle’s estate and that he is trying to get composers interested in setting his stories. I was embarrassed that I was missing something, I said “you mean ‘Thornton Wilder?'” — I suddenly put the pieces together: Tappy is Thornton’s nephew. Tappy went on to tell me that Ned Rorem and Sandy McClatchy had just finished writing a new opera on Thornton’s “Our Town” and that it would be premiered at University of Indiana, Bloomington in 2006.

He then told me of a volume of short plays by his uncle that he had edited; he would send them to me; would I look them over and consider setting a few of them to music; perhaps a pageant for church; perhaps a short opera.

My mouth was hanging open, but fortunately we weren’t on a videophone. I could only muster: “yes.”

Collected Short Plays of Thornton Wilder, Vol. 2

I am now working on the “pageant” which was originally called “The Flight into Egypt” but I’m renaming it “Hepzibah” (the name of the donkey in the play). It’s the story of Mary (carrying the infant Jesus), Joseph, and the donkey fleeing Herod, as the latter is killing all first-borns. The donkey, Hepzibah, is an Eddie Murphy type figure who is constantly kvetching about how tired his is, a source of endless chatter, and moves very haltingly, pausing for reflection, until he is threatened with a beating and reminded who he is carrying. The piece is scored for violin, cello and piano. I’m scoring Hepzibah as a tenor, although I think Hepzibah is a “she” albeit a neutered one. It could also be sung by an alto, but a soprano doesn’t seem right for a donkey. Mary is a soprano, and Joseph a bass. Wilder refers to Mary as “Our Lady” in the play, and I am changing that to Mary.

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