William Mayer, contemporary classical composer


Notes from Voices from Lost Realms
Albany Records (1992)

Two excerpts from A Death in the Family

The album opens with two excerpts from the opera, A Death in the Family, which is based on James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The opera itself was awarded a citation for excellence by Hal Prince and Beverly Sills, representing the National Institute for Music Theater.

In the first excerpt, the uncle of six-year-old Rufus is relating a miraculous occurrence at the graveside of Rufus’ father (Jay). As the coffin was lowered into the ground, the sun suddenly broke through the clouds; just at that moment a magnificent butterfly flew up out of the grave, rising ever higher until it disappeared from sight. In the musical setting, a high accompaniment ripples above the tenor’s voice, generating the sensation of rushing clouds, wind and flight.

Unexpectedly a folksong appears in the middle of the tenor’s aria, representing a flashback to childhood. The excerpt ends with Rufus dreaming of the multicolored butterfly. This is conveyed by a few dreamlike bars of piano alone. Without becoming too literal the bi-tonal glints of sound above the steady bass may be viewed as the delicate maneuverings of a butterfly.

The second excerpt takes place earlier in the opera when Jay is comforting his young son who has awoken from a nightmare. Singing the old tune Sugarbabe as a lullaby, Jay remembers how he himself was comforted when he was a little boy. Past and present now intermingle. In fantasy we hear his mother singing to him “you’re getting to be a big boy now; and big boys don’t cry.” Jay suddenly experiences an acute sense of loss when he realizes how far he has come away from his old self as a child. The excerpt closes with the same folksong we have heard in excerpt one (and which interweaves throughout the opera).


Kyrie, for a cappella chorus, was written in an abandoned Vermont schoolhouse. It was prompted by the sad news that the nine-year-old daughter of friends had contracted a serious disease. The work opens with long modal lines and simple harmonies. As the Kyrie proceeds chords grow more complex; modulations occur more quickly. Intensity supplants serenity. Shortly before the end, basses rise out of the choral fabric with a poignant motif. The work ends on an otherworldly plane with tenors singing high F sharps, pianissimo (not easy!).

First Song

In First Song, a tenor sings of three small boys making music in an Illinois cornfield by rubbing cornstalks together. The evening croaks of frogs add to this green, out-of-doors symphony. The boys exult in the music. They also experience the wonder of night and, as poet Galway Kinnell puts it, “the sadness of joy.” Joining the piano accompaniment is a clarinet, traditionally the instrument for frogs, and a violin to suggest the boys’ music making but also the mystery of night falling over an Illinois farm.
    ~ The Lyrics: First Song by Galway Kinnell

Limited and What Lips My Lips Have Kissed

Limited and What Lips My Lips Have Kissed are both from the song cycle, Passage, which focuses on the passage of time. Limited refers to the famous transcontinental railroad train, the Twentieth Century Limited. Poet Carl Sandburg observes that not even the all-steel coaches can withstand the ravages of time—to say nothing of the passengers aboard it. Yet his poem brings a light hearted tone to this troubling reality; this includes a passenger who is confident that he is going to Omaha—and no place else. A word about the train sonorities undergirding the vocal line: the harp, generally associated with gentle airy figures, finds itself in the less common role of producing metallic, twangy chords; the flute provides the repetitive clacking of wheels riding on tracks; and the performers chant out steam engine puffs.

In What Lips My Lips Have Kissed Edna St. Vincent Millay poignantly recalls lost youth. The many suitors she once had no longer court her. She sees herself as a lonely tree in winter that doesn’t know “what birds have vanished one by one, yet knows its boughs more silent than before.” She closes with the sad admission “I cannot say what loves have come and gone; I only know that summer sang in me a little while that sings in me no more.” Whistling heard in the opening and humming between stanzas hark back to “the sweet bird of youth.”
    ~ The Lyrics: Limited by Carl Sandburg
    ~ The Lyrics: What Lips My Lips Have Kissed by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Three Madrigals

The famous Passionate Shepherd to His Love, (“Come live with me and be my love”), opens this trio of madrigals for a cappella chorus. They date back to Mayer’s student days at Mannes College of Music. After their premiere in the school’s auditorium a review appeared in the Herald Tribune stating that “the madrigals were carefully modeled on their Elizabethan antecedents.” Mayer was doubly surprised: he did not know that a critic had been present, and as a young student he was all too ignorant of Elizabethan music.

The Passionate Shepherd is direct and romantic. Sir Walter Raleigh’s The Nymph’s Reply is a sassy “no” to the shepherd’s pleading—perhaps an early example of feminism! And in To Electra the suitor is spectacularly modest when he assures his lady that his utmost desire is but to “kiss the air that lately kissed thee.” But in all three of these madrigals Mayer chooses to take the poets at their word. The tone is warm in the first madrigal; by turns saucy and bleak in the second; and haunting in the last in its use of the modal scale.
    ~ The Lyrics: The Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe
    ~ The Lyrics: The Nymph’s Reply to the Passionate Shepherd by Sir Walter Raleigh
    ~ The Lyrics: To Electra by Robert Herrick

Abandoned Bells

Abandoned Bells is dedicated to the celebrated pianist William Masselos, who premiered Mayer’s Octagon for piano and orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. This performance is by the composer’s son, Steven Mayer, who has studied with Masselos. Bradford Gowen writes, in the Piano Quarterly, “Abandoned Bells is a single-movement work, frequently concerned with bell-like sounds: clanging, booming, tinkling, gently tolling. It is also concerned with piano sounds including marcato, percussive, and cantabile effects. Beginning and ending in a haunting style, it projects mercurial changes of atmosphere. Pianists should bless its publication.”

Fern Hill

Fern Hill, a recollection of Dylan Thomas’ youth on a Welsh farm, operates in two time frames. Some passages recreate the exuberance and ease of youth as they were once experienced. Other passages filter these same experiences through adult eyes. In the composer’s setting for soprano, flute and harp, abrupt changes in tempo and tessitura signal these shifts in perspective. At times the singer “is” the child; other times she is remembering the child. The extraordinarily beautiful last lines of the poem perhaps refer to the morning song of a child, unconcerned with mortality: “Time held me green and dying, Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
    ~ The Lyrics: Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

“Intimately touching” was the phrase Edward Rothstein of the New York Times chose to describe La Belle Dame Sans Merci at its premiere. And indeed this work is personal rather than formal in its treatment of John Keats’ famous poem in which a knight is seduced by a wild young maid inhabiting a medieval wood. His pleasures are short lived, however. Lulled to sleep, he has a ghastly dream of other warriors who had been with her, now all death pale and unable to escape her spell. He awakes to find his nightmare was all too real. He, too, is feverish and pale. And birds no longer sing. Heard throughout is a modal motif on the piano, linking choral stanzas. The composition seems not to end but rather to be suspended in air. This is due, in part, to the somewhat tentative resolution of the recurrent motif (concluding on the modal seventh chord).
    ~ The Lyrics: La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats

Festive Alleluia

Two of the most adventuresome choral ensembles in New York—Florilegium and The New Calliope—combine to render Festive Alleluia, which depicts the climactic moment in William Mayer’s opera One Christmas Long Ago. Ancient bells, set in a church tower that rises above the clouds, are reputed to ring of their own accord if an extraordinary offering is made. Yet they have been silent for so many years that people wonder whether these bells even exist. But on one particular Christmas Eve they do ring again because of the selfless deed of a young boy. The alleluia heard here is the congregation’s response to this miracle.

Hist Whist and Flotsam

Hist Whist (e.e. cummings) and Flotsam (Langston Hughes) show two sides of “William Mayer’s eloquent, imagistic song cycle, Enter Ariel” (Tim Page, New York Times). “Mayer’s sensitive settings actually augment the power of the texts, something not always true today,” writes Byron Belt. Hist Whist finds the poet in a goblinesque mood, dealing with ghostthings, witches, a wart on an old woman’s nose and, improbably, with “toads in tweeds.” The clarinet adds its rakish timbre to this jolly and macabre scene. Flotsam, on the other hand, expresses the hope that even after an artist is gone, his song will survive, “taken by the sea wind and blown along.”
    ~ The Lyrics: Hist Whist by e.e. cummings
    ~ The Lyrics: Flotsam by Langston Hughes

Inner and Outer Strings

“William Mayer’s Inner and Outer Strings is a remarkable work with some extraordinary string writing,” writes conductor Gerard Schwarz whose performance closes this disc. The score was commissioned by Howard Shanet in 1982 for his String Revival; he asked that it be scored for the rare combination of a string quartet with string orchestra. “I was initially dismayed,” states Mayer; “how was I to get enough contrast between two groups of strings? But my consternation gave way to excitement when I came upon a natural plan: the quartet would embody the warmth of human life while the outer strings would represent the coldness of the universe. Acoustically translated, this meant that the outer strings would play in the outer ranges: very high or very low and with a remote sound devoid of vibrato. In contrast, the quartet - or inner strings - would play expressively in the more human sounding middle ranges. And indeed this is the way Inner and Outer Strings begins and ends.”

“Yet my grand plan deferred to many other patterns once the composing got underway. At times the inner strings would trade ideas with the outer group; sometimes the two groups would merge, and often solo voices would surface from the overall fabric.” The wide spectrum of timbres prompted conductor Milton Katmis to write that “this intriguing score achieves a remarkable variety of color in a 20th century version of a concerto grosso.”

Composer’s Note

I had not planned to name this album Voices from Lost Realms. I had chosen the selections because they all seemed to share a kind of intimacy absent from more external and ceremonial type works. It was only later that I noticed that one after another of the compositions seemed to be calling up worlds distant from ours.

Sometimes it was the mythical past as in John Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci. At other times the music sought to open great reaches of space as in the string orchestra work Inner and Outer Strings. In Abandoned Bells for piano the imagined sound of long-stilled bells was the spark. Often the music sought to reenter the passionate worlds of childhood and youth in Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed.

“How far we all come away from ourselves,” wrote James Agee in his novel of remembrance A Death in the Family. The sentiments of this poignant line, set here for tenor and chorus, echo throughout the disc. Thus, the overall title of the album, Voices from Lost Realms, just about sprang up on its own.

William Mayer

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“Buy this to sample the communicative, elegant, unpretentious, superbly written music of William Mayer.”
   — Karl Miller, American Record Guide

Voices from Lost Realms CD

Voices from Lost Realms
   Albany Records (1992)

~ Order online from Albany Records or from Amazon, ArkivMusic, etc.

Gerard Schwarz conducts “Inner and Outer Strings,” one of eleven compositions on this all-Mayer disc. Other works include “Abandoned Bells” for piano (Steven Mayer) and excerpts from “A Death in the Family.”

~ Two excerpts from A Death in the Family
~ Kyrie
~ First Song
~ from Passage: Limited and What Lips My Lips Have Kissed
~ Three Madrigals
~ Abandoned Bells
~ Fern Hill
~ La Belle Dame Sans Merci
~ Festive Alleluia
~ from Enter Ariel: Hist Whist and Flotsam
~ Inner and Outer Strings
~ Composer’s Note
~ The Poems

“... touching, mesmerizing music.”
   — James H. North, Fanfare

“The revelation is ‘Inner and Outer Strings,’ which juxtaposes the throbbing warmth of a string quartet with the indifferent chilliness of a string orchestra — a metaphor for life in the ongoing American wilderness, if there ever was one.”
   New York Observer

© 2009 William Mayer