The Peculiar Case of Dr. H. H. Holmes

By Carman, Judith | Journal of Singing, September/October 2013 | Go to article overview

The Peculiar Case of Dr. H. H. Holmes


Carman, Judith, Journal of Singing


(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

ABBREVIATION KEY: Diff = difficulty level; V = voice; Ρ = piano; ? = easy; mE = moderately easy; M = medium; mD = moderately difficult; D = difficult; DD = very difficult; Tess = tessitura; LL = very low; L = low; mL = moderately low; M = medium; mH = moderately high; H = high; HH = very high; CR = covers range; CS = covers staff; X = no clear key center.

THE SONGS OF LIBBY LARSEN, PART 2

THE PECULIAR CASE OF DR. H. H. HOLMES (Libby Larsen, based on the words of H. H. Holmes and Robert Corbitt). Baritone and Prepared Piano. Libby Larsen Publishing, 2010. Tonal/ bitonal; G^sub 2^-G^sub 4^; Tess: mH; regular and irregular changing meters; varied tempos; V/M-D, P/M-D; 43 pages (18 minutes).

I. "I State My Case." Tonal; B[musical flat]^sub 2^-E^sub4^ Tess: mH; 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 6/8, J = 40-78, Not too fast. Savor the words. Highly ambiguous; V/ mD-D, P/mD; 6 pages.

II. "As a Young Man." Tonal; F#^sub 2^-D^sub 4^; Tess: mH; 4/4, 3/4,8/4, "N"/4, ... = 100-108, calm, cool, clinical; V/ mD-D, P/mD-D; 10 pages.

III. "I Build My Business." E[musical flat], major; B[musical flat]^sub 2^-G^sub 4^; Tess: mH; 2/4, "N"/4, ... = 126, Brightly; V/M-mD, P/M-mD; 9 pages.

IV. "Thirteen Ladies and Three Who Got Away (Grand Waltz Macabre)." Tonal, minor with dissonance; C^sub 3^-G^sub 4^; Tess: mH-H; "N'74, 6/8, 2/4, 3/4, freely, grandly-freely, recitative; V/D, P/D, 15 pages.

V. "Evidence." Minor tonality with dissonance; G^sub 2^-E^sub 4^; Tess: CR; 4/4, 3/4, 5/4, 6/4, ... = 40+, Subito ... = 76-80; V/mD, P/M; 3 pages.

"A room, unused since I used to reside there. In it a stove that still bears the traces of fire ... a woman's shoe- an ink bottle-a handful of pearl dress buttons ... bones." The opening lines from "I State My Case" are a chilling beginning to this masterful but incredibly macabre song cycle about one Dr. H. H. Holmes. Strictly speaking, the cycle is not "about" Holmes but is a first person narrative of his life and activities, a dark and menacing monodrama of murder.

Born Herman Webster Mudgett in Gilmanton, New Hampshire in 1861, Dr. H. H. Holmes was America's first widely known serial killer. After growing up in a more or less normal family, Mudgett went to medical school in Michigan where he began making money through insurance fraud (claiming that cadavers had died accidental deaths) and by supplying the medical school with cadavers, some of which were probably his own handiwork. After graduation he discovered that "doctoring" was not a very lucrative practice and eventually migrated to Chicago (taking the name Henry Howard Holmes), where he worked for a small pharmacy that he later bought when the owner died. He made himself a respectable member of society, bought land across from his drugstore, and constructed a three-story mansion (later called the "Murder Castle") that had on its upper two floors a maze of more than hundred rooms built for his passion for murder. During the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, the mansion was run as a hotel for visitors to the Exposition. Many unsuspecting young women registered to stay there, but most never left.

After the close of the Exposition, Holmes left Chicago and traveled around to various places, always leaving behind a trail of victims. He was finally arrested in Boston in 1894 and imprisoned in Philadelphia. During his imprisonment he gave a long confession, and several articles were written about him in the Hearst newspapers. Eventually he was tried, convicted, and hanged in 1896. Thirty-seven murders were verified by the police, but the actual number over Holmes's lifetime has been estimated at over two hundred. The text for this cycle is based on the confessions of Holmes and the notes of Detective Robert Corbitt who worked the case.

The cycle opens with the voice alone, describing the "room" where there is evidence of what happened there. The piano enters with two repetitions of a very widely spaced figure (B[musical flat]^sub 2^ B[musical flat]^sub 6^-C^sub 2^-D[musical flat]^sub 7^) followed by a falling phrase that ends on a dissonant chord. …

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