This year, Memorial Day is a fitting title—we’ll celebrate the life of my grandmother, Ruth Whitney, as we place her ashes into the ground.
I say “we”, but I won’t be among those present; I’ll be teaching workshops at Epic Skill Swap in New Hampshire and then performing with Frost and Fire at the Brattleboro Dawn Dance in Vermont. So we agreed that I would record myself reading Fermata, the poem I wrote shortly after one of my final visits to Ruth in the nursing home.
I paired it with Rokeby House, a tune I wrote years ago in honor of the Robinson family homestead in Ferrisburgh, VT—a stop on the Underground Railroad, home of noted abolitionists, and site of Frost and Fire’s first concert.
As a music student at Swarthmore years ago, I remember a persistent fear that my grandmother’s health would fail, and that I’d be called upon to compose a requiem mass in her honor. Too much time spent watching Amadeus as a child, I guess. I’d wake from sleep sometimes worried that I hadn’t even started composing, didn’t have any motives or ideas to work with… and that, when the time came, I would be caught without an answer, unable to help.
I’m not sure where that fear came from, but it faded over time, as most nightmares do. Time and Ruth carried on… and I stopped composing in the classical world and began defining myself as the traditional musician I’ve now become. I forgot about the requiem mass.
Ruth was a stellar musician, a world-class soprano who sang opera and the classics of the Western canon on major stages across the globe. It is fitting that she be remembered with music crafted in her honor. But as time has passed, my musical leanings have grown less ostentatious and more spare. No formal requiem mass. But I still wanted to honor her, and mark the occasion, with music. Here, then, is my reflection on the passing of her last hours, set to a tune I wrote. It’s simple, and I hope she would have approved.
I love you, Grandma. I hope that, wherever you are, there’s music.