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Friday, July 8, 2011

When David Heard

In my music theory class we're studying about bi-tonality and pandiatonicism.  Well, there is a certain choral composer who stands out right now in the pandiatonic medium: Eric Whitacre.  So, we listened to a bit of one of his pieces.  When David Heard is one of his most emotional, driving, intense, and chaotic pieces yet.  When you know the story behind it, its even more moving.  I've included a video of BYU Singers performing it (since it was written for them).  I hope you enjoy the story and the music.


Extract from an interview with Eric Whitacre:

...........Ron Staheli, who's the conductor there at BYU and who's a really great friend of mine, called me up and said, "Listen, I was able to convince the Barlow Foundation to give us a little extra money to commission a piece. Would you be interested in writing a piece for us? We're going to Israel for our tour." I had just married my wife at that point, and she's Israeli. I agreed to do it, and that's all that was said.
And then a couple of weeks later, Ron's 19-year-old son was killed in a car accident. And I heard the news and mourned with the choral community. Then I started reading about all these settings of that text. There's this long tradition of composers, especially in the Renaissance, setting it for kings or patrons who had lost sons. And I sort of thought of Ron as a king. So I called him up and said, "Ron, listen, I'm thinking this is the poem I want to set. How do you feel about it?"
And there was this long, long pause and he said, "Okay." That was the last time we ever spoke about the process of the piece. The rest of the time it was all very clinical between us, like this needs to go a little faster, this needs to go a little slower, that kind of stuff. And he conducted the premiere, can you imagine?

............. I can't begin to imagine what it was for him.

AH: That's why your treatment of those two words -- "my son" -- has a strong grip over the whole piece.

EW: Yeah, and I didn't have a kid at the time. For me, though, what struck me most about the Scripture is that it's so loaded with a fundamental human suffering. It was so real as I was reading it. The meditation on "my son," I guess it was a number of things. It was that, trying to recreate that drama, and then also a meditation for Ron. That maybe in some way it would help. I don't know.
I look back at it now and I think, God, what was I doing? It's a pretty bold thing to do, even for a good friend. I hope it helped him.

Dr. Ronald Staheli, more than any other conductor I have ever worked with, understands my music. He is that rare musician who discovers more music in the music than the composer even realized was there. So when I received the Barlow Commission to write a work for his amazing choir, I knew it had to be something special. The previous year Ron had recorded my Water Night, and his recording is, in my opinion, the quintessential performance of that piece. He seemed to find such powerful beauty in the rests, empty moments that became electric in his hands, so as I set out to write When David Heard I decided that my first and most principal musical motive would be silence.

The text, one single, devastating sentence, is from the King James Bible; II Samuel, 18:33:

When David heard that Absalom was slain he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, my son, my son, O Absalom my son, would God I had died for thee!

Setting this text was such a lonely experience, and even now just writing these words I am moved to tears. I wrote maybe 200 pages of sketches, trying to find the perfect balance between sound and silence, always simplifying, and by the time I finished a year later I was profoundly changed. Older, I think, and quieted a little. I still have a hard time listening to the recording.
When David Heard was commissioned by the Barlow Endowment for the Arts for the Brigham Young Singers, and is dedicated with love and silence to Dr. Ronald Staheli.

When David Heard received its premiere on March 26, 1999.



  1. I have loved that song for years and have known about the Staheli's loss, but I never knew the story of those together. It makes that song infinitely more powerful to me. Incredible. Eric Whitacre is brilliant and so dang talented. And I agree, I've never heard Water Night done better by any other choir than Singers. Thanks Lee, absolutely loved this.

  2. Thanks Michelle. I absolutely love this song/story too. There are parts that just absolutely send chills running through my body. It's amazingly beautiful, passionate, and emotional!

  3. Okay, so I'm totally blog-stalking through Monica. This is one of my absolute favorite choral works ever. I just love the way that it completely embodies the emotion of the verse. I had never read the history of this song before,in hearing it before I always thought the way he uses rests, pauses as completely brilliant