Dennis Tobenski: And He'll Be Mine (complete cycle)
Dennis Tobenski, tenor
Marc Peloquin, piano
Robert Frankenberry, tenor
Marc Peloquin, piano
Tobenski-Algera Concert Series
St. Peter’s Church — Chelsea
New York, NY
2. Craigieburn Wood
3. Him That's Far Awa'
5. Bonie Qundee
6. The Gallant Weaver
7. John Anderson, My Jo
for Rob Frankenberry and Marc Peloquin / to Chester Biscardi / to Rob Frankenberry / to those who have lost a loved one to AIDS / to Craig Urquhart / to Michael James Montgomery / to Marc Peloquin
And He’ll Be Mine, for tenor and piano, was written in late 2005 and premiered on April 26, 2006 by Robert Frankenberry and pianist Marc Peloquin on the inaugural concert for the Tobenski-Algera Concert Series.
For the cycle, I chose eight poems (two of which were halved and made into a single song) by 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns which are mostly from the point of view of a woman, and, by using a male singer, inverted the sexual intention of the texts. While this swapping of genders causes the piece to be a “gay” song cycle (which was my primary intention, to suit my own sexuality, and to fill my own need for art song with a clear gay intention), it also fits in with the folk song tradition of Scotland and Ireland, which allows specifically gendered songs to be sung by members of the same sex that is being sung about. And although my intention is for the cycle to be sung by a man, I do not object (and, in fact, welcome) that it be sung by a woman. (In my life as a singer, I have occasionally sung art songs written specifically for sopranos because the texts suited my personality or the needs of a program that I was putting together.)
The cycle opens with “Braw, Braw Lads o’ Galla Water”, a declaration of love, albeit a secret love – an idea familiar to gay men who are still on the road to accepting their sexuality. And, indeed, to those who have, but who harbor feelings for someone who they know cannot or will not return their affection.
“Craigieburn Wood” speaks more of secret love and the heartbreak that it inevitably brings. When I wrote this song, I had been “out” for several years, but still remembered keenly the longing and pain that I had suffered when I had harbored secret “crushes” on several young men prior to my coming out.
“Him That’s Far Away” draws from two different Burns poems – “The Bonie Lad That’s Far Awa” and “Talk of Him That’s Far Awa” – and talks of an experience that I have thankfully never had, but which many young (and not young) gay men have: that of being ostracised for their sexuality. My first boyfriend, just prior to the beginning of our relationship, had been disowned by his parents when he came out to them, and I drew on my intimate knowledge of his pain and loneliness when writing this song. I heightened those feelings by stripping away the piano for this song, leaving the singer alone and exposed.
“Him That’s Far Away” runs directly into “Lament”, which I dedicated “to those who have lost a loved one to AIDS”. The poem is originally titled “A Mother’s Lament for the Death of Her Son”, but I felt that it expressed equally validly the pain of losing a lover or brother or son or father or friend to the AIDS epidemic. Rather than create a song that is angry or despairing or in any way hysterical, I chose to set the song in an emotional wasteland – a place of utter shock. To achieve this, I gave the right hand of the piano an ostinato figure on C, which never changes throughout the entire song, and the voice and the left hand of the piano make use of a 9-tone row which is very occasionally inverted or retrograded. The static nature of the musical material I think creates a haunting and shell-shocked emotional landscape.
In stark contrast to the psychological starkness of “Lament”, “Bonie Dundee” is light and airy. Like “Lament”, the poem is intended to be from the point of view of a mother, though about her infant son, who she is admiring and doting over; however, by placing the poem in the context of gay life, it takes on a wholly different meaning – that of the “Daddy/Son” relationship, or that of an older man with a younger. The line “And mak thee a man like thy daddie dear” inspired the song when it piqued my sense of playfulness.
“The Gallant Weaver” is a theme & variations, and the emotional high point of the cycle. Each verse grows in complexity, starting with the simple vocal line and the piano’s parallel sixths and sevenths over a wandering bass line in the first verse, followed by the canonic second verse in which the two hands of the piano anticipate the vocal line with octave displacements, and the quasi-minimal caccia of the third verse, until the final verse with its widely-spaced block chords that march joyously to the final declaration “I love my gallant Weaver”!
The cycle comes to a peaceful, tender close in “John Anderson, My Jo” with its gently rocking accompaniment and simple vocal line. The poem still has the ability to bring a tear to my eye when I hear it read or sung. Here, the singer addresses his lover toward the end of their lives, reflecting on their long and happy relationship. Having spent so much of their lives together, they have “climbed the hill”:
Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo.
— Dennis Tobenski