Perplexed Music

SATB (divisi) a cappella

Performed by Vox16, directed by Markdavin Obenza, at Trinity Parish Church, Seattle, WA on April 16, 2016.

Recording credit: The Esoterics, conducted by Eric Banks from their CD titled Sonettaria

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EXPERIENCE, like a pale musician, holds
A dulcimer of patience in his hand,
Whence harmonies we cannot under-stand,
Of God’s will in His worlds, the strain unfolds
In sad, perplexed minors. Deathly colds
Fall on us while we hear and counter-mand
Our sanguine heart back from the fancy-land
With nightingales in visionary worlds.
We murmur,—‘Where is any certain tune
Or measured music, in such notes as these?’—
But angels, leaning from the golden seat,
Are not so minded; their fine ear hath won
The issue of completed cadences,
And, smiling down the stars, they whisper— SWEET.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)


Perplexed Music was commissioned by Eric Banks and Seattle-based choral ensemble The Esoterics for a program made up entirely of musical settings of sonnets. When I read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s beautiful poem, it appealed to me immediately with its surreal images and musical references woven throughout. Ironically it did not immediately elicit a musical reaction from me, thus I was faced with something quite unfamiliar to me: a case of writer’s block. It was not until a family tragedy struck that the poem resonated with me and my eyes were opened: our young niece and her husband lost their first-born child to a premature birth; he lived only five minutes. After receiving this news and allowing it to sink into our hearts, I returned to the text, and it came alive for me in a deeply poignant way. Rather than interpreting the text for the audience, I prefer to simply present the backstory and allow listeners to discover the meaning of the text for themselves, which I believe will yield a much more poignant experience of both the poem and the music. All that I will add is simply the dedication:

Dedicated to the memory of Michael Christian Krueger,
for whom the Angels whisper— SWEET