The Ways of Stars
SATB choir (divisi), piano, & percussion
Choral Score: $7.99
Percussion Score: $6.99
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“No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power.”
Listen & View
Maria Mitchell. Painting by H. Dasell, 1852.
In August of 1869, American astronomer Maria (muh-rye-uh) Mitchell and a cohort of her students from Vassar College traveled to Burlington, Iowa to observe a total solar eclipse (when the moon passes in front of our view of the sun). Mitchell, a respected educator and an important mind in the astronomical community, was the first woman to become a world-renowned professional astronomer, and the first woman elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She discovered a comet at the age of 29, which awarded her a gold medal prize from King Christian VIII of Denmark. She was an official calculator for the Nautical Almanac of the United States, and an endlessly-curious Renaissance woman. In October of 1869, Mitchell published her account of the eclipse in the popular monthly Hours at Home. This account serves as the main source of text for “The Ways of Stars,” along with additional quotes and writings by Mitchell.
December 14, 2020 was the final total solar eclipse of a tumultuous year and, fittingly, the day I completed this piece. I was glued to the live stream of the eclipse and struck by the metaphors swirling in my brain — of Maria Mitchell, of wonder, of challenges, of the global pandemic, of covered light, and the continued fight for equality. Mitchell’s life was a constant battle for equal rights of women, and she inspired countless students to push beyond society’s boundaries to be their very best and brightest. Through it all, she continued to wonder, to work, and to shine her light.
“You are a power, your influence is incalculable.” – Maria Mitchell
[vibraphone, 4 suspended cymbals, glockenspiel, handbells (2-3 sets), mark tree, 3 small triangles. 1-2 percussionists required, other instruments are played by the choir.]
Our instruments consisted of an equatorially mounted
telescope of four inches aperture,
a small one of two and a half inches,
and a perfect little instrument of three inches.
We must try colored glasses; we must examine clamps;
we must test screws; we must adjust focus.
The moon was expected to appear at a point
122 degrees from the vertex of the sun.
There were seconds of breathless suspense,
and then the inky blackness appeared on
the burning limb of the sun.
Born a woman—born with the average brain of humanity—
born with more than the average heart—
if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have?
No matter where you are nor what you are,
you are a power.
As the moon moved on, the crescent sun
became a narrower golden curve of light.
Light clouds drifted toward the sun;
a sickly green spread over the landscape;
Venus shone brightly on one side of the sun,
and as the last rays of sunlight disappeared…
the corona burst forth,
it encircled the sun
and sent streamers for millions
of miles into space!
We rejoiced with Nature,
we loved the light!
Give me the ways of wandering stars to know
the depths of heaven above and the earth below. (Virgil)
[Writings by Maria Mitchell, collected and adapted by the composer.]