I speak, of course, of Eric Whitacre. I've sung works of his with choirs in the past, of course, but slighter pieces which I was always told were unrepresentative of his output. However, I'm now preparing this work for a concert, which is considered to be one of his better pieces:
"Sleep" has been widely performed wherever choirs exist, has been recorded numerous times, and has legions of fans. Why, then, do I think the piece is devoid of almost any redeeming characteristics?
The first problem is the text. The inside front cover of the sheet music tells the sad story: Whitacre was commissioned a setting of Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" for a concert, but was then denied permission to use the work by Frost's publishers. Is all lost? No, a poet friend steps in and agrees to write new words to fit the previously composed music. Presto, the music is saved! Except that the poem is pretty small beer. Compare the last quatrain of Frost's poem
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.to the newly written version:
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
What dreams may come, both dark and deep,There are so many things wrong with this. The words "dark and deep" are there only to preserve key words from the earlier Frost setting, which is why they make absolutely no sense in context (dark and deep dreams?). The horrible tautology of "flying wings". The unbelievably awkward phrase "soaring leap" which, like "clouds of dream" earlier in the poem, reads like a machine translation - the poet is working so hard to fit the meter that the words no longer form idiomatic English. Finally, look at the opening quatrain:
Of flying wings and soaring leap,
As I surrender unto sleep,
As I surrender unto sleep.
The evening hangs beneath the moon,The same sort of problems: unbelievably awkward phraseology, and a dangling modifier to boot (it's the moon, a slim crescent against a dark background, that's like a "silver thread", not the evening). There are some nice ideas here, and the complete text telescopes sleep and death in a way which has potential - but the expression is simply too leaden for it to take off as a poem.
A silver thread on darkened dune.
With closing eyes and resting head
I know that sleep is coming soon.
It's obvious that the task in question - to completely remake a poem to fit an existing choral piece, including some of the key vocabulary - was a Herculean one, and I wouldn't wish to judge the poet based on it. And this in itself wouldn't damn the work entirely; plenty of good composers, from Verdi to Ives, have set less-than-stellar texts. Unfortunately, I see little of value in the musical style either. Regular readers know how I feel about the "modern choral style", with its declamatory, homorhythmic style, unresolved suspensions, bassploitation, and naive exploration of vertical sonorities at the expense of all other musical elements. Whitacre gets points for avoiding the worst tricks of the style (the incidents of bassploitation all occur near the beginning of the piece, and it's not completely homophonic). Yet in his harmonic audacity, Whitacre goes one step further than most of his contemporaries, embracing a style where dissonance has absolutely no syntactical meaning whatsoever. Added notes can be inserted into any chord at any pitch level, approached by any interval, and never have to be resolved. Because the structure has no soundness or logic to it whatsoever, the result is a voyage of unending, merciless prettiness. To say that listening to the piece is like taking an aural bath is an understatement - it's the aural equivalent of sitting in the bathtub for eight hours, playing with the bubbles while eating ice cream straight out of the pail with a spoon.
Why, then, do so many people have such a high regard for Whitacre's music? Because his style, so sickeningly sweet, has a genuine attraction; he appeals to a palate unused to subtler tastes. Because he displays a genuine craft in doing what he does; the chords are carefully voiced, the climaxes well timed, and the text setting generally quite competent. But I think the broader problem is that people see music purely as entertainment, and so don't think to apply a reasonable moral or ethical standard to the music they sing. Music like Whitacre's is founded on instant gratification, with its plump, juicily voiced chords on the audible surface, ripe for the taking. No effort required - simply sit and bask. In my view, one of the greatest virtues of the great composers is their ability to force you to listen more carefully, focusing your attention on new details at each successive listening. This is not merely an aesthetic virtue, but a moral one - it teaches us to mistrust superficial appearance, for a pleasant-sounding piece can prove tiresome on multiple listenings, or, equally, reveal new levels of meaning. Works like "Sleep" have their place in the repertoire, but their current fetishization in the choral world reveals a skewed sense of proportion and a disturbing indifference to the moral implications of art.