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Upcoming Choral Program Explores Silence and Sound

Central work in AU Chorus concert inspired by Beethoven’s experience with hearing loss

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The American University Chorus presents “On a Canvas of Silence” in the Katzen Arts Center Recital Hall on April 22 at 7:30 p.m. and April 23 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10-$15, free for AU students.  

[…what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing...] -Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827), Heiligenstadt Testament, 1802 

At the end of each semester, AU Musician-in-Residence and Chorus Director Casey Cook asks his students to send him interesting choral music. Of many suggestions, one stood out: “A Silence Haunts Me,” a 2019 composition by American composer Jake Runestad.

Professor Casey Cook conducting AU Chorus during rehearsal. Photo: Olivia Bloch
Professor Casey Cook conducting AU Chorus during rehearsal. Photo: Olivia Bloch

Runestad’s work was inspired by the Heiligstadt Testament, a letter written by the great German composer Beethoven to his brothers in 1802, lamenting the gradual loss of his hearing. Beethoven would eventually lose his hearing entirely, but it didn’t stop him from creating some of the world’s most beloved music. Runestad describes the letter as “almost equal parts medical history (including Beethoven’s first admission to his brothers that he was going deaf), last will and testament, suicide note, letter of forgiveness, and prayer of hope.” Cook noted Beethoven’s “angst as he comes to grips with his hearing loss. He’s in a low, depressed place but realizes the need to move on. He has greatness within him, and he wants to share it with the world. It was written at a time that he hasn’t accomplished much—he wasn’t the Beethoven we know now.” 

After encountering a facsimile of the letter on a trip to Vienna, Runestad approached his friend and frequent collaborator Todd Boss, whose resulting poem “A Silence Haunts Me” reimagines Beethoven’s writing with new text and uneven spacing between words and letters. These choices “force the reader to read the poem with a halting brokenness, just as one might read very old handwriting,” writes Boss, “but they also attempt to relay the halting and broken frame of mind Beethoven must have been in when he wrote his very sad letter to his brothers.” Runestad then set the poem to music, incorporating Boss’s uneven spacing to create “tense, uncomfortable, and dramatically suspended moments of silence.”  

wider angle of chorus practicePhoto: Olivia Bloch 

(Im)perfect Pitch 

For Cook, the work has proved an interesting challenge for his students to prepare. The work is challenging from a technical standpoint because of the long breaks between letters and words, requiring a great deal of voice control. He notes that Runestad’s offbeat choices are technically “unmusical,” but purposefully so to reflect Beethoven’s budding talent at this early stage of his career. “It’s been hard to explain to the students to sing in an opposite way of how I’ve taught them to sing in the past.” In all, this dramatic work empathetically brings the audience into Beethoven’s moment of despair while alluding to his brilliant works to come. 

au students in chorus practicePhoto: Olivia Bloch 

On a Canvas of Silence 

While "A Silence Haunts Me” is the central work in the program, additional works were chosen around its themes, including “music about music,” Prometheus, and fire. These works include Eric William Barnum’s “There is Sweet Music,” Kim Arnesen’s “My Flame the Song,” and Eric Whitacre’s “The City and the Sea.”  

“We are singing many compelling and beautiful songs that comment on music itself,” said AU Chorus member Samantha Noland (SOC ‘24). “I particularly love Arnesen’s work, which has soaring melodies that make my heart swell when we sing it. All in all, it's a concert you don't want to miss!”   

See AU Chorus on stage in the Katzen Arts Center Recital Hall on April 22 at 7:30 p.m. and April 23 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10-$15, free for AU students.  

Source: Runested and Boss quotes