Song settings form a significant part of the output of the American composer Libby Larsen. Like many other composers, she’s set poems of Emily Dickinson and Rainer Maria Rilke—but she has also penned a song-cycle entitled “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII.” Another, for mezzo-soprano and handbell choir entitled “Hell’s Belles,” is set to words of formidable women such as Talulah Bankhead, Billy Jean King, and Gertrude Stein.
On today’s date in 1989, Larsen’s “Songs from Letters: Calamity Jane to her Daughter, Jenny” had its premiere performance in New York City. As the title indicates, the texts are drawn from the correspondence of Martha Jane Canary, popularly known as “Calamity Jane,” a hard-drinking, gun-toting woman of the Wild West, who lived from 1848 to 1903. Calamity Jane had a daughter, possibly by Wild Bill Hickok. Calamity Jane sent the child to live with a man she called a "normal daddy,” her friend Jim O'Neil, paying child support by both legal and not-so legal means. As Calamity Jane put it: “I ain’t no lady.”
Larsen says she was fascinated by “the struggle of an individual soul, a woman and pioneer on many frontiers.” As Larsen put it: “Calamity Jane was a working woman, good in her profession, doing what she loved and making choices because of her will to work. In her time she was odd and lonely. She chooses rough-tough words to describe her life to her daughter. I'm interested in that rough-toughness and in Calamity Jane's struggle to explain herself honestly.”
Music Played in Today's Program
Libby Larsen (b. 1950)Songs from LettersBenita Valente, soprano; Scottish Chamber Orchestra; Joel Revzen, cond.Koch 7481