Baylor Chamber Singers perform songs based on Brownings’ poetry

By Emily Cousins | Guest Contributor

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning are known for their love letters and poetry. Three years after they were married, Elizabeth showed Robert the love sonnets she wrote about him during their courtship. Robert was swept off his feet by the beauty of her poems, and encouraged her to publish them. Today, they are some of the most beloved love sonnets.

The Armstrong Browning Library (ABL) at Baylor houses the world’s largest collection of Browning material. The library contains original manuscripts of their poetry, belongings of the Brownings and a plethora of sheet music set to Browning poetry.

It’s common for classical composers to set their music to poetry, however, Browning poetry is not commonly heard in recitals or choral concerts.

The library has also long been the rehearsal and performance space for the Baylor Chamber Singers. For the first time ever, the Chamber Singers will perform a concert of choral pieces and art songs, which all use the text from the Brownings’ poetry.

The Foyer of Meditation, the room in ABL where the Chamber Singers rehearse and perform, has unique acoustics that mimic a cathedral sound. The ceiling sweeps high above the singers, and is covered in 23-karat gold leaf, which almost looks like velvet from the thumb prints that pressed it into the dome.

Chamber Singers conductor Dr. Brian Schmidt said when he heard about the music collection in ABL, he knew he wanted to further connect the historic building and Browning poetry to the choir.

The classical music set to Browning poetry isn’t widely known, and many of the composers of the pieces aren’t as well known either. Schmidt said he wanted to bring light to music that has barely been performed.

“If anyone’s going to bring more exposure to this music, it should be the Chamber Singers, because we have the closest relationship with the building and the history of the Browning library,” Schmidt said.

The program will include many different poems by Robert and Elizabeth, but Schmidt said he chose to do multiple pieces set to Elizabeth’s most famous sonnet, “How Do I Love Thee?”

“I’ve always enjoyed looking at how different composers interpret the very same text,” Schmidt said. “There are so many settings of that poetry that I thought I would look for settings of it that really showed exactly how composers see the very same text, but interpreted in very different ways musically.”

Eric Nelson is one of the four composers illuminating Elizabeth’s poetry in the program. Nelson wraps the audience with a lovely melody, and the interpretation feels like a love song to a long term partner who you choose to love more and more each day.

“The gift of Nelson is it puts you in a very familiar place,” Schmidt said. “I think it sounds just like a beautiful song that you’ve heard before. It has that really warm emotional space.”

Trevor Alan Gomes, another composer showcased in the program, begins the piece in a similar way to Nelson, feeling very simple and digestible. “He then uses different surprising harmonies,” Schmidt said. “Nelson stays in this place where it comforts the listener, but Gomes uses surprises to talk about the text in different ways.”

Gomes’ sweeping lines sound like the desperation of telling an old lover you still want to be with them. The urgency of the harmony is shown through dissonance, showing these two people are meant to be together.

The third composer, Gabriel Jackson, takes an entirely different approach from Gomes and Nelson. The opening line of Jackson’s piece sounds as though the singers burst from the heavens. The excitement of the piece gains momentum with a variety of distinct harmonies.

“​​It has more of an outburst string quality; no piano accompaniment, but he uses the color of the voices in a much more extroverted, outward manner,” Schmidt said. “It’s beautiful, but it’s not as soft and subtle.”

The final version of “How Do I Love Thee?” is not a choral piece like the rest, but an art song, written by Ola Gjeilo. It will be sung by Allen senior Catherine Stewart.

“It is just interesting, mainly of the piano line and how rhythmic and fast that is,” Stewart said. “The contrast between the fast piano and the very melodic melody, it just feels different than the other pieces. I think it keeps that energy and excitement.”

The setting by Gjeilo captures the giddiness and excitement of falling in love, Stewart said. The other pieces clearly show Elizabeth’s love in a serious and meaningful way, but this interpretation displays pure nervousness and happiness that comes with finding a new love.

Schmidt said the concert of Browning music will be more of a journey than a typical choir concert.

“One of the things I love about Elizabeth’s writing is that I find her writing very personal,” Schmidt said. “There’s something about her specific writing that I think is really immediate. There’s some element of our human soul that there’s a connection.”

The Chamber Singers concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday in Armstrong Browning Library.