Which Way Home?


For Chamber Ensemble and Soprano on poetry of Anne Sexton.
soprano with violin, viola, cello, clarinet/bass clarinet, piano (2009)

for soprano with violin, viola, cello, clarinet/Bass Clarinet, piano

Composer: Drew Hemenger




13 min.


soprano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet/bass clarinet, piano


Anne Sexton


I. Music Swims Back to Me
II. Ringing the Bells
III. Snow
V. Her Kind
VI. Us

Program Notes

When I was asked to write a song cycle by the glorious soprano Alicia Berneche on the topic of “Women Poets Who Committed Suicide,” I was a little taken aback. However, when she explained that she was doing a recital on this subject, inspired by an article she had read about the way in which suicidal poets have used language differently from non-suicidal ones, I became interested. At her suggestion, I looked at a few different poets and immediately fell in love with the manic, crazy and utterly brilliant poetry of Anne Sexton. Sexton suffered breakdowns and attempted suicide several times before finally succeeding in 1974, at the age of forty-six. She went in and out of mental institutions, yet was still able to maintain a family and create a sizable body of work.

Much of Sexton’s poetry is ‘confessional’ in that she puts the unadorned details of her life on display for all to see. For example, Music Swims Back to Me is about her experience in a mental institution: “They lock me in this chair at eight a.m. and there are no signs to tell the way,” Although there is much darkness, there are happy moments as well, and she also became quite religious at one point in her life. I have selected poems primarily based on their appeal to me as well as their potential for taking on music, but also have tried to give a glimpse into this woman’s life by showing a small cross-section of her work. In the cycle, there are crazy and tragic moments as well as happy and awestruck ones.

Three years ago, Alicia again approached me and proposed arranging a few of the songs for the wonderful Orion Ensemble. I was thrilled, and after consulting with the Orion, ultimately ended up expanding five of the eight poems, but also adding a new intro and recomposing several sections, so that the result is actually a new work with its own dramatic arch.


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