Letters for a Composer: Dominick Argento's Casa Guidi

By Westlund, Beth Ray | Journal of Singing, January/February 2008 | Go to article overview

Letters for a Composer: Dominick Argento's Casa Guidi


Westlund, Beth Ray, Journal of Singing


IT IS NOT SURPRISING THAT DOMINICK ARGENTO'S INFLUENCE is particularly strong in the realm of American vocal music, since he considers the human voice the "original instrument." His thirteen operas and eight solo song cycles to date encompass a wide range of topics and musical styles. Argento often has chosen a text based on who will be singing a piece and on me character that will be portrayed through the singer. Ultimately, this characterization directly shapes the ensuing musical style forged by Argento. The way in which Argento brings musical life to the letters of nineteenth century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) in Casa Guidi is the topic of this article.

Based on Barrett Browning's letters to her sisters, the 1983 cycle for mezzo soprano provides an intimate depiction of the warmth and contentedness of Browning's life at her home, Casa Guidi, in Florence, Italy. Casa Guidi is often less familiar to teachers, performers, and audiences than Argento's Pulitzer prize-winning From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (1975), also composed for mezzo soprano. This may be due to the fact that Casa Guidi was composed for orchestra rather than piano, and because, until the 2004 Grammy award-winning recording, no commercial recordings of the work were available. However, the musical, vocal, and dramatic opportunities inherent in both the piano and orchestral versions of this piece warrant its consideration. Although it is assumed that the piano/vocal version will be used by the majority of performers, references to the orchestral score are relevant in matters of texture, timbre, and the composer's initial conception.

A commission by the Minnesota Orchestral Association to write a piece for mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade and orchestra led Argento to texts of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He has spoken repeatedly about choosing prose over poetry for many of his vocal works "since the mood is more intimate and private"1 and provides an inner glimpse into the world of a person.2 He sought "a writer whose 'persona' was similar to von Stade's-vulnerable, kind, gentle, domestic."3 Argento found these qualities more obviously in Barrett Browning's letters than in her published works. Because her fragile health isolated the poet and restricted her contact with people, letters were not only a record of her life, but very much a part of it. The letters chosen by Argento chronicle life in the Florence household after her 1846 marriage to Robert Browning. Argento patches together portions of various letters and arranges the resulting song text without adhering to chronology. Only two of the five songs are made up of text taken entirely from a single letter of Barrett Browning. The three remaining songs each contain excerpts from at least three letters.

The speech-like quality of the letters made them both a boon and a challenge for me composer (and performer). It would seem that letters present a less obvious transformation to song than is offered by poetry with structure and form, and the rhythmic flexibility demanded by the letters' speech imitation then requires intricate rhythmic patterns and frequent changes in meter and tempo. Still, the resultant "blending of conversational and cantabile styles"4 that is a hallmark of so many of Argento's vocal pieces works for Barrett Browning's mix of everyday reports and more poetic revelations. One sees Argento's theme of "self-discovery" emerging in his selection of the letters.

In Casa Guidi, we see Elizabeth Barrett Browning confiding in her sister her truest and deepest feelings about her husband Robert, her great sorrow over the estrangement from her father, her love of her child, her domestic nature, her sense of humor; things we would never learn from her poetry alone, things she herself might not have realized until she found herself writing them down privately, sharing her inmost thoughts.5

After secretly marrying Robert Browning in September 1846, Elizabeth left her home in London. …

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