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Putting Andrew Wyeth into Pictures, Words, and Music

When composer Van Stiefel realized that he wanted to somehow set the paintings of Andrew Wyeth to music, he searched for the words to marry to his expressions in sound. Fortunately, he found David Livewell’s Woven Light: Poems and Photographs of Andrew Wyeth's Pennsylvania, a set of poetry about Wyeth’s art that the artist himself called “powerful” and “deeply moving” before his death in 2009. This marriage of pictures, words, and music enjoyed its world premiere on January 12th. Stiefel’s Wyeth Songs redefines the idea of multimedia, snatching it back from modern technology and reclaiming it for the old school ideas of community, tradition, and love.

I remember when the Brandywine River Museum hosted a memorial for Andrew Wyeth shortly after his passing. Crowds thronged to see the works, of course, but more importantly to share in a communal way the art of this very communal artist. Wyeth painted not just the landscapes of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Cushing, Maine, but also the people of those places, who became a family in the truest sense of the word. Likewise, Wyeth Songs also embodied this community spirit.

The culmination of a Community Partners' Project, the music side brings together Stiefel, the Kennett Symphony Children’s Chorus, and the American Composers Forum, Philadelphia Chapter. Livewell’s poetry provided the final piece of the puzzle. “Each exquisitely crafted and researched poem addresses a specific work and is a veritable lesson on how to view a Wyeth painting,” Stiefel explains. “I chose three poems suggesting themes central to both Wyeth's work and to this commission: childhood's presence in the adult's life, art practice as an intergenerational shared experience; and lastly, landscape as a locus of memory.”

Livewell’s Woven Light (which I reviewed here) poetically engages with selected paintings by Wyeth. Coupled with photographs of many of the places Wyeth painted, Woven Light brings you intimately close to the meaning of Wyeth’s work—a testament to Livewell’s lifelong fascination with Wyeth’s art as well as the Brandywine Valley itself. As in Shackamaxon, Livewell’s award-winning collection of poetry based on his experiences growing up in a poor section of Philadelphia where family and community were the most cherished possessions, Woven Light cuts through the surface realities of poverty and difference to find the common heartbeat of a group of people.

Listening to the premier of Wyeth Songs I couldn’t believe how beautifully all the different strands wove into one beautiful tapestry of a community experiencing art together. Stiefel chose three of Livewell’s poems linked to three paintings from different points in Wyeth’s career: 1956’s Roasted Chestnuts, 1981’s The Big Room, and 2007’s Me. With those three touchstones, Wyeth Songs manages to travel half a century in half an hour.

Wyeth’s Roasted Chestnuts shows his friend Alan Messersmith selling chestnuts freshly roasted in a barrel along the side of Route 202 in Chadds Ford. “In Eisenhower jacket, gloves, knit cap,/ His service stripes will flap/ Like flags till twilight, shrewd eyes rove/ Incoming cars,” Livewell describes Messersmith’s presence. At the end of the poem, Livewell describes Messersmith in old age: “The boy white-haired, profound,/ A bearded Merlin farther down the road.” Wyeth referred to his friend Alan as “Merlin” because of the distinctive long, white beard he wore years later. Stiefel captures that tension between youth and age by juxtaposing the voices of the children’s choir with that of featured soloist baritone Randall Scarlata. Against the backdrop of the innocent children’s voices, Scarlata’s voice booms as the voice of experience, both the mature Wyeth looking upon the boy on the side of the road as well as the elder Merlin perhaps looking back at what spells he once conjured. Stiefel allows the human voices to take center stage by choosing to use sparse instrumentation: a keyboardist, a single percussionist, and Stiefel’s own electric guitar. The combination of the children’s voices, Scarlata’s clear baritone, and the spare but supporting instruments makes for a beautiful simplicity perfect for approaching the art of Wyeth. By the time Scarlata sings of the “bearded Merlin farther down the road” you are already traveling along the road with the music as much as with the artist who inspired it.

After a brief “interlude” of children’s voices from the back of the hall singing a Christmas-esque melody to the accompaniment of jingle bells, Wyeth Songs enters 1981’s The Big Room, a painting of the parlor in which the Wyeth’s spent their family Christmases. “The parlor gleams with Christmas memories,/ With angling shafts on apples, bricks, and floor,/ On family portraiture/ And shadowed finials, antiquities,” Livewell lyrics begin. The haunting melody of this segment captures beautifully the ghostly presence of two household gods presiding over the parlor: “The bust of Beethoven,/ As deaf as stone, conducted household noise” and “Old Pa (Andrew’s father N.C. Wyeth), who “returns to coax/ His youngest pupil through the turning year.”

N.C.’s ghost seems even more present in the final section on Andrew’s 2007 painting Me, which Livewell imagines as a monologue by Andrew himself. The piece begins with a sound effect of a passing train—a passing reference to N.C.’s tragic death in 1945 when his car stalled on a set of train tracks not far from the family home in Chadds Ford.  “[H]ere I sit and freeze with mill and river,” Livewell’s lyrics imagine Andrew saying, “My boots dug deep in what I love and know.Me shows Wyeth doing what he loved—painting out of doors in all kinds of weather to capture the real life of the world around him. Scarlata and the choir sing much of this section in unison, as if to symbolize how Wyeth the old, knowing man and Wyeth the eternal, wondering child coexisted so perfectly. The elegiac beginning, capturing the weariness of age, soon opens up into a brighter key and a joyous mood, led by Stiefel’s beautiful guitar work. “Cold light will mark my hour,” the section ends.Just eyes and paint at last. No trace of me…” In the end, there is silence. Not the silence of the void, but rather the silence of unity, of finding a home in which you can finally lose yourself.

In the program notes, Stiefel explains how, “[d]espite the stillness and austerity of many of Wyeth's images, for me, they are spirited by sound.” For him, Wyeth’s “paintings seem to rattle, rustle, moan, and jangle with unseen life… that cannot be directly rendered.” Wyeth Songs aims not to mundanely explain Wyeth’s paintings, but to create “a space where the lives of subjects, and artists, and viewers meld for an instant in time.” Thanks to the poetry of David Livwell, the music of Van Stiefel, and the talents of the Kennett Symphony Children’s Chorus, Randall Scarlata, and the musicians, Wyeth Songs created a magical space like that of Wyeth’s art itself—beyond space and time, deceiving in its simplicity, and best experienced in person with friends and family around you.

[Image: Barry Moser. Andrew Wyeth (relief engraving). Illustration for poster for Wyeth Songs concert.]

[Many thanks to David Livewell for providing me with copies of Woven Light: Poems and Photographs of Andrew Wyeth's Pennsylvania and Shackamaxon as well as many enlightening conversations about the project. Many thanks also to Barry Moser for allowing me to use the image above.]

[Full Disclosure: David Livewell is a personal friend of the author.]

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