New Argento work honors his late wife

Dominick Argento
Dominick Argento says "Evensong: Of Love and Angels" means more to him than anything else he's ever written.
Photo courtesy of VocalEssence

Dominick Argento sits at a baby grand piano in the second-floor music studio of his Minneapolis house. He shared this home with his wife for nearly 40 years.

He opens the score to his latest work and plays a simple and delicate melody. He jokes that it's even simple enough for him to play.

National Cathedral
The Washington National Cathedral is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Photo courtesy of Washington National Cathedral

The tune is a prayer written to be sung by boy soprano. It comes near the end of Argento's new work for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra, "Evensong: Of Love and Angels."

The work was commissioned by Washington Cathedral Choral Society. The group's conductor Reilly Lewis contacted Argento in 2005 and asked the composer if he'd be interested in writing a piece to commemorate the Washington National Cathedral's 100th anniversary.

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What Lewis didn't know was Argento's wife, Carolyn, was suffering from a mysterious neurological ailment. Argento says he told his ailing wife that he turned down the commission.

"She was rather unhappy about that," he remembers. "She was a minister's daughter in Baltimore and as a child her father had taken her on a day trip to Washington to visit the National Cathedral. It was a big deal and she never forgot it. So she thought it would be very sweet for me to write this piece. I told her I'd do it when she got home and recovered and I had the time to compose again. But she did not recover."

Carolyn Bailey Argento died in February 2006. A soprano, she had premiered many of her husband's works. During 51 years of marriage she was his advisor, critic and muse.

Composer and conductor
Composer Dominick Argento and conductor Reilly Lewis go over the full score of "Evensong: Of Love and Angels." The meeting occurred the day after Christmas in Argento's hometown of York, Pennsylvania.
Photo courtesy of Reilly Lewis

Dominick Argento, who is considered one of America's leading composers of lyric opera and choral music, credits his wife with helping him learn how to write for voice. After she died he says he felt adrift.

Conductor Reilly Lewis renewed his request for a new work, but Argento told him that he wasn't interested in writing music anymore.

"He turned the tables on me," Argento says. "He said, 'I know you are probably not in the mood to write anything happy or celebratory, but what about writing something in honor of your wife?' I gave that a lot of thought and decided that, yes, I could do that."

Dominick Argento began writing "Evensong: Of Love and Angels" on his wedding anniversary in September 2006. He finished the work on the same date a year later.

Argento's close friend and colleague Philip Brunelle, artistic director of the choral group VocalEssence, has read through the score. He says it's a beautiful, contemplative work.

Philip Brunelle
Philip Brunelle says Dominick Argento is one of this country's leading composers of lyric works.
Krivit Photography

"It's going to be a piece that gives a great deal of serenity to the soul," he says. "I just think that people are going to be very uplifted and taken by the whole experience of this piece."

The score of "Evensong: Of Love and Angels" uses original texts by the composer along with excerpts from scripture and the Book of Common Prayer.

Throughout the work's nine sections, Argento finds ways to use his wife's initials: C, B, A.

"Rather than just go down the scale I raised the last note up an octave and added another," he explains. "The final three chords concluding the piece are also based on those letters. Those are the things that make composing fun. I enjoy doing things like that, burying those little signals, those little icons, all through a piece. For me, that's part of what the art of composition is about."

Dominick Argento says this work means more to him than anything else he's ever written.

Cathedral Choral Society music director Reilly Lewis says he's glad he was persistent in asking Argento to compose a work for his choir. He felt Argento was the right composer at the right time.

"I, frankly, when I learned the details of his wife's illness was drawn even more to wanting to encourage him," he says. "It became a kind of quest for me. This is a love story. It's also a life's work. It's unique."

Lewis says he's been deeply touched by the experience of working with Dominick Argento in the commission of "Evensong."

The 80-year-old composer says this work written in memory of his wife is the best he's capable of doing.

"This wouldn't be a bad way to end a career," he says. "Considering my age, I don't expect to have many more works. I don't know that I'd want to continue writing where I never have the kind of impetus, inspiration and desire to write a piece as strongly as I had with this work. In a funny way, I think everything I write after this will be a let down."

Dominick Argento's "Evensong: Of Love and Angels" will be premiered by the Cathedral Choral Society Sunday afternoon at Washington National Cathedral. The performance will be recorded for CD release.

Argento has a couple commissions for large choral works waiting, but he says he wants some time following this weekend's premiere to decide whether he'll write them. He says sometimes he feels that it would be right for "Evensong" to be his final work.