The song cycle based on the poetry of Willa Cather debuts at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 7, in Whitley Auditorium in a performance by Miller, Senior Lecturer in Music Polly Cornelius and Professor Emerita Victoria Fischer Faw.
Award-winning composer Chris Miller ’99 will return to campus to premiere a new collection of songs performed alongside Elon University music faculty next week.
“Prairie Songs and April Twilights” debuts Monday, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. in Whitley Auditorium. The song cycle is based on the poetry of Willa Cather and set to music that evokes the expanses of the Great Plains where the author spent her formative years. Senior Lecturer in Music Polly Cornelius will perform soprano vocals with Miller and Professor Emerita Victoria Fischer Faw on piano.
Miller composed the music for the Broadway production of “Tuck Everlasting,” scored the revival of “Angels in America,” and was part of the team that won a 2012 Daytime Emmy award for music in “Elmo Time” and “Sesame Street.” Miller worked closely with Fischer while an undergraduate at Elon, cultivating a passion for dramatic composition before earning his Master of Fine Arts degree in musical theatre writing from New York University.
“Prairie Songs and April Twilights” is a song cycle — a series of compositions meant to be played in sequence from beginning to end.
“I had never set poetry like this before. As a composer, I usually write on my own or work with a lyricist. Cather’s poems have a lyrical quality that lend themselves well to musical settings,” Miller said. “The centerpiece is ‘Macon Prairie,’ which is a long poem. It was a challenge to create pieces and sections, but now it feels like a musically satisfying ride. I love what these songs became as they showed themselves to me.”
The project began when Cornelius commissioned Miller to write several songs following his 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award by Elon College, the College of Arts & Sciences. Her scholarship involves premiering works by living American composers. They debuted those first songs at Elon in 2015 and in Florence, Italy, in 2016. Miller completed the song cycle using 13 of Cather’s poems over the next several years.
“It’s gorgeous,” Cornelius said of the finished work. “I’m honored that I get to work with Chris and be the first to sing and record these beautiful songs. These songs are going to be a large contribution to the arts-song genre.”
There are plans to record, release and publish “Prairie Songs and April Twilights” later this year.
“I was aware of the depth and substance of Chris’s research and immersion into Willa Cather’s words, life and place. I knew this music would be good. Well, it’s much more than that. I think it’s a masterpiece, an important new contribution to the art-song literature,” Fischer said. “I am incredibly honored to be involved in its premiere performance, to work with Chris the composer, and with Polly Cornelius, the golden voice for whom it was composed.”
Miller was drawn to Cather’s direct use of language and the wit, humor, and heart in her writing. He had already begun a separate theater project based on one of her short stories, commissioned by a New York theater, when he discovered the poems that became these songs. “They were a natural fit for Polly and the way she sings. She brings emotional directness to the work that amplifies the text,” he said.
While on campus, Miller will lead several masterclasses for music and theatre undergraduates. He appreciated the perspective that visiting professionals offered while he was an undergraduate and wants to give similar feedback and support to current students pursuing careers in music and the arts.