Irreveries from Sappho

Irreveries from Sappho
for mezzo or soprano or SSA & piano (1981)
& for clarinet quartet (2016)

American Composers Alliance (soprano & choral versions) 7 minutes
American Composers Alliance (clarinet quartet version)
Navona CD, Capstone Records, & iTunes

“hugely funny, elegant” (The Post-Standard, Ithaca)
“makes serious the musical styles of ragtime, blues, and boogie but makes humorous some of women’s age-old traumas.” (The Columbus Dispatch)
“The hit of the American selections was Vercoe’s Irreveries from Sappho.” (Washington Post)
“fresh & fun” (William Bolcom)

The titles of the three songs are: Andromeda Rag, Older Woman Blues, and Boogie for Leda.

Irreveries is wickedly satiric and full of musical jokes and parodies on the subject of jealousy, ageism, and gossip. The composer comments: “Although Sappho’s poetry is over 2500 years old, the deft translations by Mary Barnard seem remarkably up-to-date. Sappho’s wit calls for whatever musical sleight of hand a composer might muster: thus the use of popular idioms and hidden tunes (‘Turkey in the Straw,’ ‘Auld Lang Syne’), as well as the more respectable tricks of the trade such as counterpoint and recitative. Sappho’s three women have clearly distinctive voices, but all three bespeak a fierce pride.”

This piece has been widely performed by a variety of soloists and choral groups including the New York Virtuoso Singers and the Thamyris Contemporary Ensemble at venues including the Corcoran Art Gallery, Harvard University, Abraham Goodman House, the Cleveland Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the University of Iowa, a NATS Regional Convention, Mills College, Mt. Holyoke College, the Cité International in Paris, and King’s College in London. The songs are published by Arsis Pess and recorded on Capstone and Navona CDs by mezzo Sharon Mabry & pianist Rosemary Platt. In 2016 the piece was performed in Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood by soprano Fleur Barron and pianist Eri Nakamura and at Tanglewood again in 2019.

Note: There are also unpublished versions available from the composer for: two sopranos & piano, mandolin & piano, and clarinet quartet (two bass & two standard clarinets in B-flat).

A dissertation by Maria Theresa Hu on Sappho songs includes a chapter on Irreveries. (Hu chapter.)


Irreveries from Sappho

I hear that Andromeda—

That hayseed in her hay-
seed finery-has put
a torch to your heart

and she without even
the art of lifting her
skirt over her ankles—

Of course I love you

But if you love me,
marry a young woman!

I couldn’t stand it
to live with a young
man, I being older

People do gossip

And they say about
Leda that she

once found an egg
hidden under

wild hyacinths

—from Sappho, A New Translation, by Mary Barnard
used with permission of University of California Press