Since the early days of his publication, Robert Frost has been identified as a brilliant poet and teacher of wholly American creation. His collections of poetic works have achieved unparalleled heights in the literary canon, while his use of untraditional forms, colloquial language, and New England sensibilities helped to construct an entirely new genre of pastoral poetry. In addition to his literary achievements, Frost also received a prominent honor from the musical world when American composer Randall Thompson set seven of his poems to music in 1959.
Born in 1899, Randall Thompson was similar to Frost in that he spent much of his childhood and adult life in New England. After attending Harvard University in 1916, Thompson developed an avid interest in choral composition and worked at numerous music-related jobs. In 1927, Thompson was appointed assistant professor of music and choir director at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and, after gaining standing in the music world, began to teach and conduct at Harvard, Princeton, Juilliard, Curtis, the University of Virginia, and Berkeley. After receiving a commission from the League of Composers in 1935, Thompson wrote “The Peaceable Kingdom,” which would become one of his most famous choral works and establish his reputation as a choral composer. Thompson eventually met Frost, and the two became good friends; in addition to their common love for New England, both men greatly respected each other’s artistic accomplishments.
In 1959, Thompson was commissioned by the town of Amherst to compose a choral work in honor of their two-hundredth anniversary. Because of Amherst’s close association with Frost (as well as Thompson’s friendship with the poet), the town decided that Thompson should set one of Frost’s poems to music for the event. They initially selected “The Gift Outright,” Frost’s well-known patriotic piece, but Thompson disagreed with the selection and asked for permission to select his own text from among Frost’s work. The end result, entitled “Frostiana: Seven Country Songs,” is a seven-movement choral piece based on the text of seven of Frost’s poems: “The Road Not Taken,” “The Pasture,” “Come In,” “The Telephone,” “A Girl’s Garden,” “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “Choose Something Like a Star.”
Because Thompson composed the work while in Switzerland, Frost heard the piece for the first time at its premiere at the Amherst Regional High School in Amherst on October 18, 1959. Thompson conducted the premiere and used the Bicentennial Chorus, made up of local singers, and piano accompaniment (Thompson did not orchestrate the suite until after Frost’s death in 1965). According to some reports, Frost was so delighted by the performance that, at the conclusion of the piece, he stood up and shouted, “Sing that again!” In fact, he was so impressed by the composition that he banned any other composers from setting his poems to music.
Thompson made a palpable effort to match his music to Frost’s poetry, particularly in terms of the themes of everyday life, rural tradition, and nature that Frost highlights in his work. As a result, “Frostiana” has the same appealing, colloquial elements found in Frost’s poetry but with the additional layer of musical language. For example, “A Girl’s Garden” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” both have folksy melodies, while “Come In” features (in orchestrated form) a flute solo that imitates the sound of a thrush.
This layering effect of musical meaning over poetic meaning is particularly clear in the final movement of the piece, “Choose Something Like a Star.” In the opening and closing sections, the sopranos sing the text “O star” on a high D and hold the note for several measures while the rest of the choice continues with the text of the poem. By placing the held soprano line high above the other voices, Thompson creates a musical image of the distant star that reassures mankind.
Thompson’s compositional decisions in the piece clearly follow Frost’s example in terms of metaphorical meanings. As we have found in all of Frost’s texts, he attempted to instill meaning in every aspect of his poetry, from the sound of certain syllables and the meter to the rhyme scheme and specifically New England topic. Frost exhausted the possibilities for layering meaning in his poetry, particularly in such famous pieces as “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” yet when Thompson added the genre of music to Frost’s poetry by composing “Frostiana,” he allowed for additional layers of meaning in the text: the musical metaphors of choral harmony, melodic text painting, and folk references in addition to the literary metaphors of the “sound of sense,” meter, and rhythm.