Standing Tall: Choral Music for Mental Health

WRITTEN BY JENNIFER KANE

Welcome! The texts for the repertoire on Standing Tall: Choral Music for Mental Health are found below and in program order. In addition to the texts, you will find some brief notes about why I included each piece in our program, as well as links to the websites of some of our soloists.


There are some incredible composers represented in our concert. While these notes do not detail the composer's output and compositional style, their web pages and/or bios are hyperlinked for your convenience.


These notes and texts will remain on our web page through the end of 2022. Come back to revisit any texts or to learn more about the composers whose works are featured here.

Finally, while putting together this program, I amassed quite a collection of choral music related to mental health. If you are looking for repertoire for treble or mixed voices on the theme of mental health, please reach out to me at novawcp@gmail.com.

Enjoy!



Umoja - music by Zanaida Robles


Umoja is the first principle of Kwanzaa and means "unity." This piece was composed by Dr. Zanaida Robles, a singer, conductor, and music educator in Southern California, and is one of a few songs in her series "Kwanzaa Songs." The pentatonic melody is simple, yet Robles adds so much depth through her contrapuntal setting, improvisatory passages, and a cantus firmus of the Umoja melody. 


She Lingers On - text and music by Zanaida Robles


She Lingers On is a new work by Zanaida Robles. In this work, Robles uses musical devices to represent some of the complicated feelings of depression. 


She walks in pools of sadness.

Her face is cool in moonlight.

No one can cover it.


She walks in pools and moonlight.

She lingers on. 

She lingers on.


Depression Diary - text and music by Rosśa Crean


NOVA is so fortunate to have incredible soloists in our ensemble, and it is a joy to highlight their gifts! Sara Mitnik, one of our mezzo-sopranos, deserves the credit for finding Depression Diary and connecting with its composer, multi-genre recording artist, and composer, Rosśa Crean. I liked the texts' honesty and was excited to include the work in the program. Depression Diary is a song cycle originally intended for one solo voice; however, NOVA performs it today with a different singer for each movement to represent the many different faces of depression.  


The Colors - Sara Mitnik, soloist

I don't want your flowers.

They're bursting with bright colors all around, and I've none to show.

The winters muted them long ago.

The starkness of a white expanse;

"Our Father" finally got His quiet rest,

Without a voice to sound in idle protest

But soon the snowfall's bound to take its bow,

(and each flake a voice of its very own),

and shakes the stillness of "Our Father's" quietude that's gone unchallenged.

Its heavy-handed quelling chased away a dream that I'm still hunting.

Someday the snow will build and grow

and with its luminescent glow, I'll have a voice all of my own

With shades of blue and green and gold

I'll make colors of my own.

On second thought, I think I'll take the flowers after all.


Cocoon, Holly Ahearn soloist

My cocoon is soft and lovely though at times, it does feel lonely, 

but I am too afraid to be outside.

They'll see how different that I am and notice that I don't fit in, 

or all the many chances that I tried.

The world can be a scary place.

I see it on each weathered face, not that any of them would take the time to look at me.

When there are more important things than why I'm always worrying,

I wouldn't have an answer

Even if they took the time to question me.

Questions, always questions.

Never asking just what help I need, only questions. 

Always questions, 

Asking why I'm sad or mad, or what the hell is wrong with me.

No answers.

My cocoon is soft and lovely though at times it does feel lonely, 

but I am too afraid to be outside.


Numbness, Jade Espina soloist

My head is pasted on.

All hope of clarity resting on paper mache, 

And it's bound to crack.


My torso, a storage of blood and bone, locked away.

Its center a hollow space packed with cotton

filling til my heart falls back in place.

Until then, place my head on a pillow gently

Until the Norepinephrine sets in.



The Peace of Wild Things  - poem by Wendell Berry; music by Joan Szymko


Wendell Berry's poem celebrates nature's ability to restore the human spirit. The speaker, full of despair and fear, finds a kind of peace among the "wild things" of the natural world, which - unlike humans - do not worry about whatever might happen next and instead live in the present. Joan Szymko's setting of this beloved text beautifully conveys the fear and unrest of the human mind and the refreshing peace found in nature. 


When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children's lives might be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


How Can I Keep From Singing? - Original words by Robert W. Lowry, adapted by Gwyneth Walker; music by Robert W. Lowry, arranged by Gwyneth Walker 


How Can I Keep From Singing is an American hymn and folk song that speaks of unshakeable faith and courage in the face of strife. This arrangement by Gwyneth Walker is particularly exuberant and is one that we love to sing! 


My life flows on in endless song above earth's lamentation. 

I hear the real though distant song that hails a new creation. 

Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing.

 It sounds an echo in my soul, how can I keep from singing? 

 

What though the tempest loudly roars, I hear the truth, it's living! 

What though the darkness round me close, songs in the night it's giving! 

No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I'm clinging. 

Since I believe that love abides, how can I keep from singing? 

 

When tyrants tremble when they hear the bells of freedom ringing. 

When friends rejoice both far and near, how can I keep from singing? 

In prison cell, in dungeon dark, our thoughts to them are winging.

 When friends hold courage in their heart, how can I keep from singing? 

 

All the way home  - Text written and inspired by members of the Radcliffe Ladies Choir; music by Sarah Quartel


 Ask any choral singer why they go to rehearsal week after week, and they are likely to say that they love making music with the people in their ensemble. Choral singing is the ultimate place of belonging. This lovely piece by Canadian composer Sarah Quartel celebrates the joy of making music together. The text is written and inspired by the Radcliffe Ladies Choir members as they reflected on their motto, "friendship through singing."


Sing to me comfort, sing to me home,

Sing to me friendships I have known.

Sing me a place where I belong.

Joyful, with harmonies sing me

All the way home with a song in my heart.

All the way home brighten my path and carry me on, 

All the way home. 

 

There's a beautiful power in what we bring,

There's strength in the glorious song we sing.

Easing all troubles, calming all fears.

Joyful, with harmonies sing me

All the way home with a song in my heart.

All the way home brighten my path and carry me on, 

All the way home. 

 

Evening brings a shining star, 

Her ancient anthems from afar. 

Silence below, her song in the sky.

Joyful, with harmonies sing me

All the way home with a song in my heart.

All the way home brighten my path and carry me on, 

All the way home. 

 


Be Like the Bird  - text by Victor Hugo; music by Abbie Betins


Abbie Betinis wrote Be Like the Bird in 2009 after completing cancer treatment for the second time. Victor Hugo's text provides an empowering and inspirational foundation for the haunting melody and subsequent canon and reminds us that we all possess "wings." 


Be like the bird who, pausing in her flight awhile on boughs too slight, 

feels them give way beneath her, and sings, knowing she hath wings.

                                                                                                                                                                                    

She - text and music by Laura Mvula; arranged by Andrea Ramsey

 

She, written by British artist/songwriter Laura Mvula and arranged by Andrea Ramsey, portrays the cycle of life of a female and the questions, emotions, and feelings of desperation that accompany it. Mvula says of She," I'm fascinated by the idea that as human beings, even in that ultimate sort of desperation - loneliness, or isolation, or coming to the end of yourself - there could be something as small as hope, as small as a mustard seed. It could be minute, but it's enough to sustain you for however much longer. When it feels like you have nothing left, there's always something." She, as recorded by Laura Mvula, can be found on her debut album, Sing to the Moon


She walked towards you with her head down low,

She wondered if there's a way out of the blue.

Who's gonna take her home this time?

She knew this time wouldn't be the last time.

 

There she waits, looking for a savior.

Someone to save her from her dying self,

Always taking ten steps back and one step forward,

She's tired, but she don' stop.

 

Every day she stood hoping for a new life,

She closed her eyes and she heard a small voice say

"You don' stop, no you belong to me."

She cried, "Maybe it's too late."


She don' stop.

 

She walked towards you with her head down low,

She wondered if there's a way out of the blue.

Who's gonna take her home this time?

She knew this time wouldn't be the last time.


Standing Tall  - text by Ellen Gilson Voth and singers from the Handel and Haydn Youth Choruses; music by Ellen Gilson Voth.


This piece was commissioned in 2018 by the Kane family (mine) after the death of a close family friend, Alexandra Valoras. The commission intended to use music as a means to encourage discussions of mental health and to combat the stigma that often surrounds it. Composer Ellen Gilson Voth was struck by the image of an old apple tree that was just around the corner from the Valoras' home and wrote a text that uses the changes of the tree through the seasons as a metaphor for the seasons of life. She also worked with the Handel and Haydn Youth Chorale to write a life-affirming text emphasizing every person's inherent value. The Youth Chorale thoughtfully provided answers to these questions:

  1. If you know that someone is struggling or feeling down, what would you want them to know?

  2. How would you tell someone they are loved, special, and valued? 


Voth layered some student responses with the text about the apple tree. The student responses are in the parentheses of the text below. 


The Handel and Haydn Youth Chorale could not premiere Standing Tall in 2020 but look forward to singing it in the spring of 2023. Ellen Gilson Voth won the 2022 ACDA Pearl Prize for her work in this composition, and Standing Tall has gone on to be published by Graphite Publishers in a variety of voicings. 


I see your buds in springtime, the fruit you share in summer,

Standing tall against the sky, making a mark on the world.

 

I see the snow that graces you in winter, the golden leaves you wear in fall,

You may feel bare branches weighing toward the ground, yet I know your strength within.

 

Your blossoms may fade, your leaves may be swept away,

But your roots are strong, and your beauty lives on.


We treasure you in springtime, (There is no one in the world like you)

And in the warmth of summer

We are better people with you in the world

We share the loneliness you feel in winter (Think of those you cherish)

And in the fading light of fall (And those that cherish you)

(You touch our lives in ways you don't even know.)

(Tomorrow is always a new and different day.)

 

Seasons come and seasons go, 

Yet we will always see you standing tall,

Come summer, winter, spring, or fall,

Making your mark, your beautiful mark on the world.



Light of a Clear Blue Morning - text and music by Dolly Parton; arranged by Craig Hella Johnson and Richard Gabrillo 


Light of a Clear Blue Morning is a beloved song by American singer-songwriter Dolly Parton. Its message is simple and timeless: there is light, even in the darkest of times. 


It's been a long dark night

And I've been a-waitin' for the morning.

It's been a long hard fight,

But I see a brand new day a-dawning.

I've been looking for the sunshine

'Cause I ain't seen it in so long.

Everything's gonna work out just fine,

Everything's gonna be alright,

It's gonna be okay.

I can see the light of a clear blue morning.

I can see the light of a brand new day.

I can see the light of a clear blue morning.

Everything's gonna be alright,

It's gonna be okay.

I can see the light of a clear blue morning.

I can see the light of a brand new day.

 


Please Stay - text inspired by #IKeptLiving; music by Jake Runestad


Composer Jake Runestad found inspiration for Please Stay through the non-profit movement To Write Love On Her Arms and their 2016 World Suicide Prevention Day campaign. To Write Love On Her Arms is dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide, and their 2016 campaign was entitled, And So I Kept Living. Using the hashtag #IKeptLiving, thousands of people who battle depression took to Twitter to share their stories on why they chose life over death. Runestad read through the tweets and used them to inspire the text for this work. Of this work, Runestad writes, "Please Stay is an anthem for hope –an attempt to destigmatize mental illness and challenge all of us to support those who are battling depression and thoughts of suicide. You are not alone. We can make a difference. We can be the support system that saves a life."


No! Don't go! 

Don't let your worst day be your last.

The storm is strong, but it will pass.

You think you can;t go on another day,

But please stay.

Just stay.

 

Hope is real

Help is real 

You are breath, you are life, 

you are beauty, you are light.

Your story is not over, 

you are not a burden to anyone

Please stay. Just stay.

Edward Rosser, pianist

Edward Rosser is the Minister of Music at South Acton Congregational Church; Ballet Accompanist at Dean College in Franklin and at Jose Mateo Ballet Theater in Cambridge; and accompanist for several area schools. He has also made three recordings for the Connoisseur Society label.

Rosser holds a BA in Music from Albion College, Michigan, and a Masters Degree in Piano Performance from Boston University.