SPS Today: World Premiere Director of Chapel Music Nicholas White Sets His Dreams to Music
Nicholas White was browsing the poetry shelves at the library of McMurry University in Abilene, Texas, when he discovered little-known lyrics by the author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was not known as a poet. A year later, in 1994, White premiered the piece (“On Dreams Alone”) at a composer’s forum at Hardin Simmons University.
“On Dreams Alone” was one of 13 songs performed in a major new work by White for the Keiser Concert Series on April 13. Twenty-five years removed from that chance discovery, White, the director of chapel music and organist at St. Paul’s since 2011, has built an impressive body of work, setting the prose of 19th century poets to music. He swears that the selection of the vintage scribes’ work is coincidental to their common theme of dreams. White’s mastery of sacred music and his understanding of how to make it accessible in an increasingly secular world has led to numerous commissions, including an opportunity in 2011 to write a musical setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” – all 18 verses – for the 2012-13 season of the Dumbarton Concert series in Washington, D.C.
“The poem is so well-known and iconic,” says White, “and remarkably had never been set as a composed song.”
The original “Raven” piece for the Dumbarton series was written for four soloists, a string quartet, and a piano. The April 13 performance at St. Paul’s marked the third version of the Poe conversion White has put together. It included six soloists, a string quartet with added double bass, and a choir in the form of the SPS Madrigal Singers, bringing the number of participants to 32, which made the performance more of a spectacle.
“Nicholas White’s music stands out for its sing-ability,” says soloist Roger Isaacs. “His understanding of vocal and instrumental writing enables him to craft work that is complex yet accessible, and his sense of musical line will have you humming themes days after the performance.”
The program for the Keiser Concert Series also included original White compositions from the poetic works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Robert Bridges, and Arthur O’Shaughnessy. “The Raven” portion of the program was a test for the Madrigals, says White, because of the student singers’ role as collective amplifiers of the six guest soloists. The presence of the Madrigals, says White, added a layer of warmth and fullness to the sound, and the students executed the word-heavy movements with aplomb.
“The strangest part,” White says of the initial inspiration of the F. Scott Fitzgerald verses, “is that it took 25 years for me to make this music public. That’s a long gestation.” White’s next commission is a 45-minute choir and orchestra piece in celebration of the Concord Chorale’s 50th anniversary. The setting of Wordsworth’s Ode “Intimations of Immortality” will be performed in January 2019.