Former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove has had her work set to music by, among others, award-winning composer John Williams. Next month, her reading at the University of Rochester will include musical interpretations of two of her poems written by students at the Eastman School of Music.
Doctoral composition candidates Kevin Ernste and Aaron Travers were commissioned by the Department of English earlier this summer to choose and score a poem by Dove. The finished works will receive their world premiere during the Pulitzer Prize winner’s appearance at 3:15 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 9, in lower Strong Auditorium on the River Campus.
Both pieces are based on poems in the same source, Dove’s collection titled Mother Love, an examination of the tenacity of love between mother and daughter based on the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, but the compositions differ in expression and emotion.
“My piece is well-contrasted with Aaron’s, as are our styles in general,” said Ernste. “My piece is inward, contemplative, and patient, and his piece is more animated and intense.” The text for each is sung by a soprano.
Ernste chose the last poem from the cycle “Persephone in Hell,” attracted to the work’s rich imagery and the sound qualities of its language. The accompaniment is played by piano, viola, and alto flute.
Travers was drawn to the duality of “Afield,” noting, “ ‘Afield,’ to me, presents two worlds or ‘fields’: one, allegorical; the other realistic or immediate.”
Travers chose to use percussion with the piano and viola, employing the light, driving rhythms of bongos and bright crotales, an instrument of cymbal-like discs, to reflect the light, giddy texture of the beginning of the poem, in contrast to the starkness of the second part of the work.
Ernste and Travers are students of David Liptak, professor of composition, and both have had compositions performed by other artists. Eastman School of Music students will perform their music for Dove’s poems.
Dove herself also has a musical background; she played cello in her high school orchestra and in her spare time now studies voice and practices on the viola da gamba, a 17th-century forerunner of the modern cello.
Dove won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for her collection of poems, Thomas and Beulah, which were based on the lives of her grandparents and their move North during the Great Migration. She is only the second African-American poet to win this prize. She served as Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1993 to 1995, the youngest person and the first African-American to hold that honor.
In addition to several highly acclaimed volumes of poetry, Dove has written essays, the novel Through the Ivory Gate, a book of short stories titled Fifth Sunday, and the play The Darker Face of the Earth.
Her appearance at the University is part of The Plutzik Series and coincides with Meliora Weekend, the University’s annual tradition of celebrating homecoming, alumni reunions, and family weekend at the same time.
The Plutzik Series is one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious literary reading programs and readings are free and open to the public. Established to honor the work of Hyam Plutzik, a distinguished poet and Deane Professor of Poetry and Rhetoric at the University, it has featured more than 175 noted writers, including Pulitzer Prize winners Anthony Hecht, Elizabeth Bishop, and Galway Kinnell. The Plutzik Series is administered by the Department of English. For more information, contact (585) 275-4092.