Music brings new life to the words of a fallen soldier

Pfc. Jesse A. Givens
Pfc. Jesse A. Givens of Springfield, Missouri was 34 when he was killed in Iraq. He left behind a pregnant wife and 6-year-old stepson.
Photo courtesy of Melissa Givens

Private First Class Jesse Givens of Springfield, Missouri was killed in Iraq on May 1, 2003 when his tank crashed into the Euphrates River. Less than two weeks earlier he had written a heartfelt letter to his pregnant wife, unborn son and six-year-old stepson. It was to be opened only in the event of his death.

When he first heard about it, Cantus Artistic Director Erick Lichte was immediately struck by the text: "Here was a husband, a father, a soldier who went to Iraq and his voice was silenced. And here we were wanting to sing and we could give voice to somebody who was silenced."

Music for Cantus
Sheet music for Leo Hoiby's new choral work, "Private First Class Jesse Givens."
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

Lichte first became aware of Jesse Givens' letter to his family when composer Lee Hoiby read it to him over the phone. Cantus had commissioned Hoiby to compose a new work for the group, but hadn't decided on a text. The letter had been published in The New York Times and featured in the HBO documentary, "Last Letters Home."

Hoiby wanted to set Jesse Givens' words to music because, he says, they were overflowing with feeling: "I thought right away of this soldier sitting in his barracks at night, probably chewing a pencil, and trying to find words for such a message. It was a very intimate letter. The kind of a letter that you would never expect to read from a husband to his wife. That's what lends it further power."

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Lee Hoiby's setting for the letter is simple, with a three-part voicing that supports the intimacy of the words. Cantus tenor Aaron Humble says Hoiby has done a nice job of capturing the range of emotion as Jesse Givens writes about the life he shared with his family.

Aaron Humble
Tenor Aaron Humble says composer Lee Hoiby has captured the range of emotions in Jesse Givens' letter to his family.
Photo courtesy of Cantus

"Hoiby pays close attention to the emotional shifts in the letter," Humble says, "going from the exciting to the rhapsodic, for example, he and his wife meeting and their marriage as he says, 'I married you for a million lifetimes.' That phrase just whirls off the page. Or when he's speaking to his son and tells him he'll be in the park where he played. You can almost hear the merry-go-round spinning and the swings swinging. I think Hoiby really set that well."

Jesse Givens' widow Melissa says her late husband was an absolutely wonderful person, father and husband. She gave Cantus and composer Lee Hoiby permission to set her husband's letter to music. She says it's a special honor because he loved music.

"He listened to every kind of music, which really kind of got on my nerves sometimes," she admits with a laugh. "I'm not a big jazz or classical fan, and he would listen to anything."

The members of Cantus celebrate their tenth anniversary this season.
Photo courtesy of Cantus

Listening to Lee Hoiby's setting of Jesse Givens' letter, Erick Lichte says he's especially touched by the closing lines: "Go outside and look at the stars and count them. Don't forget to smile."

"The hopefulness and the love of life that's expressed in his words is immeasurable," he says. "It's almost too much to bear."

Melissa Givens says she's proud that even in death her husband continues to touch people. She'll get an opportunity to witness the effects of her husband's words mixed with music next week. She'll fly from her home in Colorado to Wisconsin to hear Cantus and other groups sing the new work in Eau Claire during the Intercollegiate Male Choir Festival.

Cantus premieres Lee Hoiby's "Private First Class Jesse Givens" during its 10th anniversary concerts Friday and Saturday in the Twin Cities.