Herstory I for mezzo or soprano, piano & vibraphone

Herstory I
for soprano, piano & vibraphone (1975)
American Composers Alliance, 20 minutes
Navona Recordings

“…With her music inspired by the texts of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and other high minded types, this is almost like Georgia O’Keefe paintings set to music” (Midwest Record)


Written in 1975, Herstory I is the first in a dramatic series of song cycles by Elizabeth Vercoe on texts by women poets. Varying in instrumentation from solo voice to use of the complete trio of voice and instruments, the songs relate a woman’s life experiences: finding freedom only in madness, coming to her child in the midst of a nightmare, growing older with her partner, expressing bitterness about aging, and dreaming at 80 of her youth.

The texts are highly expressive poetry by contemporary American women poets, some of whom are sometimes called “confessional” poets: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Pam White. (See texts below.)

Herstory I received its premiere at the Brookline Public Library with Delores Fox, soprano, and the composer at the piano. There have been many other performances including New England Conservatory and The Contemporary Music Forum at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The cycle was recorded by the Boston Musica Viva for WGBH-FM with Cheryl Cobb, soprano, Randall Hodgkinson, piano and Dean Anderson, percussion, now on a Navona CD.


1. Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn (Anne Sexton)

The summer sun ray
shifts through a suspicious tree.
though I walk through the valley of the shadow
It sucks the air
and looks around for me.

The grass speaks.
I hear green chanting all day.
I will fear no evil, fear no evil
The blades extend
and reach my way.

The sky breaks.
It sags and breathes upon my face.
in the presence of mine enemies, mine enemies
The world is full of enemies.
There is no safe place.

2. Her Kind (Anne Sexton)

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thighs
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not afraid to die.
I have been her kind.

3. Side by Side (Adrienne Rich)

Ho! in the dawn
how light we lie

stirring faintly as laundry
left all night on the lines.

Lassitude drapes our folds.
We’re slowly bleaching

with the days, the hours, and the years.
We are getting finer than ever,

time is wearing us to silk,
to sheer spiderweb.

The eye of the sun, rising, looks in
to ascertain how we are coming on.

4a. For a Child: The Crib (Adrienne Rich)

You sleeping I bend to cover.
Your eyelids work. I see
Your dream, cloudy as a negative,
swimming underneath.
You blurt a cry. Your eyes
spring open, still filmed in dream.
Wider, they fix me—
—death’s head, sphinx, medusa?
You scream.
Tears lick my cheeks, my knees
droop at your fear.
Mother I no more am,
but woman, and nightmare.

4b. Morning Song (Sylvia Plath)

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

5. Mirror (Sylvia Plath)

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful—
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of the hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

6. Old (Anne Sexton)

Death starts like a dream,
full of objects and my sister’s laughter.
We are young and we are walking
and picking wild blueberries
all the way to Damariscotta.
Oh Susan, she cried,
you’ve stained your new waist.
Sweet taste—
my mouth so full
and the sweet blue running out
all the way to Damariscotta.
What are you doing? Leave me alone!
Can’t you see I’m dreaming?
In a dream you are never eighty.

7. Sleep (Pam White)

Weave my threads to sleep,
Old woman threads bring sleep to thyselves.

Let long age close my eyes.
Let shadows fade from sight.
Sleep now sleep and weave.

And red and orange pale into sky.
Dreams done color slowly seeps from sprouted seeds, her

Her long shoots of life cover
Sleeping woman in a silver dream tapestry.

Soft woman, sleeping woman.
Shadows weave the song of death
Speak of death in