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'Echo' Returns

James Hopkins' Composition Extends Earlier Piece, Adding Three Movements Also Set to Christina Rossetti's Poetry


One work begets another. Last April, James A. Hopkins composed "Echo: Come to Me in the Silence of the Night," a setting of a poem by Christina Rossetti, for the Pacific Chorale.

"It was quite a hit with the chorus, enough so [that] I decided maybe I would incorporate it as one of a larger set," Hopkins said in a recent phone interview from his Pasadena home. "So I added three movements, also on the poetry of Christina Rossetti."

The chorale and conductor John Alexander will premiere the piece, "The Rossetti Songs," on Sunday at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach.

In seeking the text for the earlier "Echo," Hopkins had fallen in love with Rossetti's poetry.

"I am very attracted to her style and her sentiment," he said. "It's very inward, wistful, autumnal. Most of the poetry is quite sad. She seems to have been a very unhappy woman. This comes through in her poetry."

The four movements--"May," "Echo," "Song (When I Am Dead, My Dearest)" and "A Birthday"--progress from darkness to light, Hopkins said. "The first and third poems are very introspective, and they address [Rossetti's] sadness quite specifically--lost loves, a life that didn't work out very well.

"The second movement, one imagines, is a person talking mentally to a dead loved one, asking the person to come back in dreams and so on. The last movement, which is the only real upper of them, she just starts using some very positive imagery."

All the texts are written in the first person. But neither "the gender of the person speaking nor the person spoken to or about is ever identified," he said. "The poetry suits men or women equally well."

Because the fourth poem also uses the phrase "Come to me," Hopkins quotes the parallel musical passages from the second movement. "It's clearly a quotation, but also in a much brighter context."

Conductor Alexander had a role in the creation of the new work.

"For this year, I asked him to do something different, something that was not a cappella but for chorus and a few instruments," he said in a separate phone interview. "One of Jim's greatest assets is his orchestrations. He's a marvelous orchestrator. I took the orchestra away from him. I'm thrilled with what he came up with."

Replied the composer: "I suggested the new piece be for chorus and harp. In order to integrate 'Echo,' I wrote an optional harp part. It's very much an accompaniment. In the three additional movements, the harp part is totally independent. It's not optional. And in the last movement, it's quite a virtuoso piece for the harpist.

"I find the addition of one of more instruments helpful in order to vary the length of the phrase and not let the moment die between sections of the text."

To get his musical phrases, Hopkins spends "a lot of time simply saying the texts aloud to become very familiar with speech rhythms and the natural inflections. By exaggerating the inflections, that is frequently the source of motifs or melodies for the music."

To make sure the words remain clear, the writing is primarily homophonic. "The independence of parts comes from the contrast between the choral parts and the harp. The harp is totally independent. In no way is it an accompaniment. It's a partner."

The work, which completes Hopkins' two-year appointment as composer in residence at the chorale, was written over the summer and fall.

"The writing came easily once I got down to writing notes," he said. "I spend a lot of time before I write the first note getting things pretty clear in my head. The notational aspect usually goes pretty fast."

He also has made a version for small orchestra and chorus because "some chorus directors may prefer an orchestra. But at this point, I don't have anything on the books for the orchestra version."


Hopkins' association with the chorale actually predated his appointment as its first composer in residence. In 1993, the Pacific gave the premiere of his "Songs of Eternity," a work commissioned by Edward and Helen Shanbrom of Santa Ana to commemorate their son, David Lee, who died in a traffic accident in 1986. The Shanbroms later endowed the composer in residence program.

Alexander said the chorale is looking for a new composer in residence. "There will be a work [by that person] on the final program of next season," he said. But "the funding is undecided."

The remainder of the Sunday program will consist of a cappella works or works with chorus and organ.

"In all the time the chorale has been at the Performing Arts Center," Alexander said, "my great frustration has been that there is not an organ in the hall. So much of our choral literature is with organ. I'm continually having to leave out this whole element of our literature.

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