Cold Spring composer to celebrate two writers
In a 2018 interview with The Current, on the occasion of his Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall debut, composer Eric Starr spoke of the genesis of a piece he had just begun.
Five years later, it has come to fruition and will be the centerpiece of Starr’s Sept. 9 performance at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon of A Celebration of Women in History, a tribute to poet Vera Brittain (1893-1970) and novelist Winifred Holtby (1898-1935), best known for South Riding.
The project celebrates, he says, “two extraordinary British women in history who were authors and social campaigners. It uses a kind of mixed-media presentation of poetry with original music to create a portrait of love and loss, ambition and courage.”
The piece came about, he says, because he had wanted to write for cello and piano and, while looking for inspiration, came across “Perhaps,” a 1916 poem by Brittain, “which gave me the shivers.”
Reading it, he “felt much sorrow but also a sense of courage and resiliency. It resonated with me in my own life. Suddenly, the piece was born from it. The creative process is mysterious, and I accept that.”
When he began writing Celebration in early 2018, he felt “at an impasse in my own life at that time, and humanity itself, asking a lot of questions, thinking about the material self versus the spiritual self. I turn to poetry a lot, but couldn’t find inspiration; nothing worked.”
By Vera Brittain
Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although I feel bereft of You.
Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of Spring seem gay
And I shall find the white May blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.
Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.
Perhaps someday I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to the Christmas songs again
Although You cannot hear.
But, though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.
He found “Perhaps” in a collection of Brittain’s poems titled Because You Died. “Something clicked and I went to her archives, where I spent time holding her original diaries, which were moving, as she’s writing some horrible things about that ghastly war [World War I],” he recalls. “Ultimately, it was strangely uplifting, because in her sorrow we see someone who is showing so much fortitude.”
Of his subjects, he says: “I don’t know them, certainly don’t speak for them, but have spent years learning as much as I could about them. On some level, I wanted the music to be intimate, imagining their inner thoughts, the sense of loss they experienced.
“Instead of sitting at the piano and thinking with my musical mind, I tried to be as quiet and still as possible,” he adds. “I was a conduit exploring where the art comes from, to where it flows.”
The composition contains a poem spoken before each piece of music. “The music ponders existence, through the horrors of war, but also, through Winifred, from a pastoral Yorkshire village,” he explains. “Music takes us back, through the embers of time, to another place.”
Starr’s collaborators for the performance will be cellist Hannah Holman and pianist Katherine Miller, along with actor Brandy Burre, a Beacon resident who will read the poems. It will be the first time Starr has performed at the Howland Cultural Center.
A native of western New York, Starr runs a teaching studio in Cold Spring, where he specializes in piano and drums but mentors the occasional composition student. Starr says his work probably falls under the “contemporary classical” category; his influences range from impressionist composers such as Debussy and Ravel to jazz artists like Bill Evans, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays.
“I teach a lot of youngsters, usually age 5 and up; right now my oldest student is an octogenarian,” he says. “It’s a great way to hybridize my life, teaching, composing. I meet a lot of interesting people with interesting stories.”
The Howland Cultural Center is located at 477 Main St., in Beacon. A Celebration of Women in History will be performed at 8 p.m. on Sept. 9. Tickets are $20 at howlandculturalcenter.org or $25 at the door.