A Silence Haunts Me
ABOUT THE WORK
"A masterpiece." - Dale Warland
"A piece that left so many deeply touched and transformed. Profound and unforgettable." - Elena Sharkova
"I have never felt closer to a composer of the past as I did at the end as the sound faded away and all we could do is imagine. It was a profound experience." - Andrew Minear
"You brought tears to my eyes as I really felt Beethoven's heartbreaking journey for the first time. It was unforgettable." - Angie Gocur
"I think Jake Runestad just broke the choral mold in the most amazing and beautifully haunting of ways. Very seldom have I heard the premiere of a piece where I thought: 'Wow, that was truly transformational.'" - Paul Aitken
In 2017, Jake Runestad travelled to Leipzig, Germany to be present at the premiere of Into the Light, an extended work for chorus and orchestra commissioned by Valparaiso University to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Luther nailing his Ninety-Seven Theses to a door in Wittenberg, thereby kicking off the Reformation. While traveling after the concert, Runestad found himself in the Haus der Musik Museum in Vienna, where he encountered a facsimile of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament.
It was the first time he had read the famous text, which is almost equal parts medical history (including Beethoven’s first admission to his brothers that he was going deaf), last will and testament, suicide note, letter of forgiveness, and prayer of hope. Runestad was flabbergasted and found himself thinking about Beethoven, about loss, and about the tragedy of one of the greatest musicians of all time losing his hearing. Beethoven put it this way, “Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed.”
When the American Choral Directors Association offered the Raymond C. Brock Commission to Runestad for the 2019 National Conference, he took many months to settle on a topic, finally deciding on setting Beethoven’s words. While researching Beethoven’s output around the time of the letter, Runestad discovered that Beethoven wrote a ballet, Creatures of Prometheus, just a year before penning his testament. “Beethoven must have put himself into Prometheus’ mindset to embody the story,” Runestad noted. “Just as Prometheus gifted humankind with fire and was punished for eternity, so did Beethoven gift the fire of his music while fighting his deafness, an impending silence. What an absolutely devastating yet inspiring account of the power of the human spirit. In the moment of his loss —when he wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament — he had no idea how profound his legacy would be” (“legacy” being one of the themes of this ACDA’s anniversary conference).
Because of the length of the letter, a verbatim setting was impractical; Runestad once again turned to his friend and frequent collaborator, Todd Boss, to help. Boss’s poem, entitled A Silence Haunts Me – After Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament creates a scena — a monologue in Beethoven’s voice for choir. The poem is both familiar and intimate; Boss has taken the fundamentals of Beethoven’s letter and spun it into a libretto that places the reader/listener into the same small, rented room as one of the most towering figures of the Romantic Era.
To those words, Runestad has brought his full array of dramatic understanding and compositional skill; A Silence Haunts Me sounds more like a self-contained monologue from an opera than a traditional choral piece. Runestad, who has published three operas to date, shows his flair for melding music with text even more dramatically than in familiar settings like Let My Love Be Heard and Please Stay. He sets the poetry with an intense, emotional directness and uses some of Beethoven’s own musical ideas to provide context. Stitched into the work are hints at familiar themes from the Moonlight Sonata, the 3rd, 6th, and 9th Symphonies, and Creatures of Prometheus, but they are, in Runestad’s words, “filtered through a hazy, frustrated, and defeated state of being.”
In wrestling with Beethoven, with legacy, and with loss, Runestad has done what he does best—written a score where the poetry creates the form, where the text drives the rhythm, where the melody supports the emotional content, and where the natural sounding vocal lines, arresting harmony, and idiomatic accompaniment — in this case, piano in honor of Beethoven — come together to offer the audience an original, engaging, thoughtful, and passionate work of choral art.
Program note by Dr. Jonathan Talberg (please credit this writer in all programs and other media).
2019 ACDA National Conference by the Capital University Chapel Choir and Dr. Lynda Hasseler, conductor.
WORKSHOP WITH COMPOSER
I'd love to collaborate with your choir either in person or via a video conference to workshop the piece. Please contact us to inquire about this opportunity.
A Silence Haunts Me
adapted from a letter by
Ludwig van Beethoven
Hear me, brothers —
I’ve a confession painful to make.
Six years I have endured a curse
that deepens every day. They say
that soon I’ll cease to hear the very
music of my soul. What should be
the sense most perfect in me
fails me, shames me, taunts me.
A silence haunts me.
They ask me —
Do you hear the shepherd singing
far-off soft? — Do you hear a distant
fluting dancing joyously aloft?
— No. — I think so? — No. — I
think so? — No.
God, am I Prometheus? — exiled
in chains for gifting humakind
my fire? Take my feeling —
take my sight — take my wings
midflight but let me hear the
searing roar of air before I score
Why? — Silence is God’s reply
— and so I beg me take my life —
when lo — I hear a grace and feel
a ringing in me after all —
so now as leaves of autumn fall, I
make my mark and sign my name
and turn again to touch my flame
of music to the world, a broken
man, as best I can,
(— A bell? — A bell?)
and be well.
ABOUT THE TEXT
This loose adaptation of Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous Heiligenstadt Testament was unusually difficult to write. Jake suggested the subject matter in a phone call while I was traveling Europe, and it literally haunted me for days afterward, waking me in the middle of the night. I wrote the words “Hear me” and “A silence comes for me” in London between the hours of 2am and 4am. A few days later, I spent the entire 7-hour span of a transatlantic flight writing and rewriting, developing the poem’s unusual shape and format. I finished it several weeks later while in Vienna, and a visit to Heiligenstadt became part of my journey with the piece. I was often in tears during the process. I myself was traveling alone, and so the process was uniquely intense. I was six years into the loss of everything I held most dear, and so I swear I inhabited Beethoven’s state of mind bodily, muscles quaking, unsettled for hours after each of the poem’s twelve major revisions.
I invented many things that don’t appear in Beethoven’s letter. The plea “Take my feeling, take my sight, etc.,” occurred to me as a way of declaiming the terrible irony of Beethoven’s loss, a momentary bargaining as happens as a stage of grief. Comparisons of his plight to that of the accursed Prometheus, Jake’s idea, are in reference to The Creatures of Prometheus, the ballet Beethoven finished a year prior to his sojourn at Heiligenstadt. “A bell” tolls at the end of the letter, and it might be he suddenly hears one, it might be his tinnitus, or it might be a figurative acknowledgement of a newfound hope.
The poem is set in italics to mimic handwriting and arranged against ragged margins to look like a letter. I’ve isolated the letter i wherever it appears, and further isolated nouns that refer to people (I, You, me, brothers, etc.) with nine spaces on either side to isolate them, in recognition of Beethoven’s isolation from himself and others, and in honor of his nine completed symphonies. No punctuation is utilized. All these odd typographical choices force the reader to read the poem with a halting brokenness, just as one might read very old handwriting, but they also attempt to relay the halting and broken frame of mind Beethoven must have been in when he wrote his very sad letter to his brothers.
Note on the text by poet Todd Boss.
NOTE TO THE PERFORMERS
A Silence Haunts Me should be approached with great sensitivity and theatricality. As this is a dramatic work, the performers should engage deeply with the character of Beethoven, both visually and sonically, and seek to embody the notated vocal colors and styles. It is highly preferred that this work is performed from memory and that the ensemble engages a stage director for coaching on dramatic stage presence. A mere sing-through will not do the piece justice. The spaces created with the fermatas should be respected as notated so as to create tense, uncomfortable, and dramatically-suspended moments of silence. All breaths have been provided with rests in the score and none should be added. While tempi may fluctuate depending on the ensemble and the space, it is requested that they follow as closely as possible to the notated tempi. The pianist is the symbolic embodiment of Beethoven and should assume the character of the music throughout. See the composer’s website for a performance by the Capital University Chapel Choir — the composer worked closely with this ensemble on the interpretation and recommends it as a guide. Please read the “Audience Introduction” immediately before each performance of the work (included in the score notes).