The Creation of Dear Theo

Since the release of the recording "Dear Theo" on Delos records it's been gratifying to hear the comments of many people who have been moved by the CD. The opening cycle in particular, which is also the title of the album, seems to have struck a chord. Some have expressed curiosity about how I came to write it and what my process entailed. So I thought I would share here some of the facts about its creation.

Dear Theo, for tenor voice and piano, is based on certain passages from the letters of Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo. The work actually began as an a cappella choral piece of the same name which I wrote in 2009. That work was commissioned by Robert Cowles of Hobart College and premiered there in 2010. (Dear Theo for chorus will receive its New York premiere by the New Amsterdam Singers on May 28th, 2015.) In the years since the premiere of the choral version I slowly worked on the song cycle, utilizing and transforming many of the themes from the choral piece.

For both versions my process has involved a careful reading and rereading of the letters, identifying what were for me the most potently emotional passages and phrases, juxtaposing them, and then adapting them to music. Each version or form has, of course, its own advantages and limitations. The fact that the song cycle includes piano accompaniment allowed me to create music in which the piano could provide background textures, for example, whereas in the choral work I could make use of vocal counterpoint. For the song cycle I mined many more passages from the Van Gogh correspondence to create a substantially longer work.

Most song cycles are settings of established poems. Less commonly, they may be set to original lyrics. Rarely are they based on prose, though some contemporary examples spring to mind such as Libby Larsen's wonderful "Try Me Good King." Dear Theo was the first song project based on prose that I had attempted. The first glimmer of the idea came to me while I was vacationing in Amsterdam in the Netherlands many years ago and paid a visit to the Van Gogh Museum. Besides being captivated by the astonishing art on display I was also intrigued by the wall texts. Carefully chosen passages from Van Gogh's letters to his brother, in English translation, were quoted alongside many of the paintings. One quote in particular stayed with me. In it, Vincent, speaking about mortality, expressed his desire to leave some souvenir in the form of drawings or pictures. It's a notion that moved me then and years later became the basis for the final song in the cycle: Souvenir. But at the time it was merely a germ of an idea that I hoped I might utilize someday. The opportunity to do so came when Robert Cowles first approached me about writing a choral piece.

Sometimes I'm asked to give advice to composers regarding how they should go about choosing text to set to music. This is a subjective process, of course, but because writing a good song is such a challenge under any circumstances, I always advocate giving yourself every advantage right from the beginning. Why not choose material that moves you emotionally and perhaps even speaks to you personally in some way? As a composer (and a painter) who has struggled against the odds (as most artists do) there was no doubt about my feeling of connection to the letters. Finding the best method and musical language to translate their emotional content into song would be the next challenge.

So the question arises: how does one go about turning prose passages into song? First and foremost it is tremendously helpful to have some flexibility with the chosen texts. In the case of the Van Gogh letters, I chose the earliest English translation which is in the Public Domain. (I consulted with a copyright attorney who confirm their status and provided the legal language for their citation.) Secondly, to avoid confusion, I have been careful to subtitle the work as "based on the letters" as opposed to "from" or "set to." This language appears in the Delos CD materials, on this website, and on the printed music available for purchase as a downloadable PDF file. The words "based on" also appear in the legal footnote which identifies the source of the translation. All this may seem overly meticulous to some but it is important to establish how source materials are used. And flexibility with the text allowed me the freedom to weave passages together, play with the chronology, repeat certain words or phrases, and make editorial modifications such as the use of synonyms or the addition or deletion of certain phrases.

And yet, for all of that, I want to emphasize that "Dear Theo" stays very close to the chosen passages as originally translated. And where modifications were made I endeavored to stay as true as possible to the spirit of the text. Many sections are virtually word-for-word settings of the translation (the song "The Man I have to Paint is an example). Others were modified either to embody more of the meaning of an entire letter in a short song or to allow for a more symmetrical structure that could lend itself to the creation of a melody. A melody can be the most transformative conveyor of an emotional idea. So constructing a melody, while respecting its textual basis can, I believe, get closer to the truth than a verbatim setting of a translation that may or may not be entirely reliable in any case.

My "Dear Theo," of course, is a personal vision of only certain aspects of the letters. The correspondence is so large and rich that a myriad number of musical or artistic treatments are possible. I focused on the passages that moved me deeply and I am grateful that this song cycle as well as the choral piece have moved others as well.

Ben Moore