The Far West
The Far West
a cantata for tenor solo, chorus, and orchestra (45')
Winner of the National Choral Award for "Outstanding Choral Composition" from Choral Canada
Completed in October, 2014.
Commissioned by James and Elaine Hutchison in memory of Phyllis Hutchison and John Boswell.
Text: by Tim Dlugos, from A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos, copyright ©2011 by the Estate of Tim Dlugos. Used with permission of the Estate of Tim Dlugos. Additional text by George Herbert (public domain).
The first performance of The Far West took place on 9 November 2014 at the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer, Calgary. It was given by Luminous Voices, the Luminous Voices Chamber Orchestra, Lawrence Wiliford (tenor), and Timothy Shantz (conductor).
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Tim Dlugos died of AIDS on December 3, 1990, at the age of 40. He had been diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1987 and had spent his final three years of life studying to become a priest at the Yale Divinity School, volunteering as a hospital chaplain-in-training, and writing poetry. His final poems document a dark time: a time of weekly funerals for lost friends and a time of progressing personal illness.
But, surprisingly, many of Dlugos’s late poems focus on hope; he once wrote, “Grace, in a very orthodox sense, is my major preoccupation.” While he mourns the loss of friends, and he expresses disgust toward the disease that has ravaged the gay community with particular vengeance, he also celebrates the beauty in his life, and he looks forward to the “light” that will come after it is over.
I found Tim Dlugos’s poems by accident. While browsing through library stacks at Yale University one autumn afternoon in 2006, I stumbled upon his long poem “G-9” (only a portion of which is set here) and was engrossed. The idea for this piece was born, an idea that developed slowly over eight years. Throughout my musical life, I have found inspiration in the many cantatas of J.S. Bach, and I wanted to use echoes of Bach’s world to create a sacred space around these powerful words.
The Far West charts a trajectory from disease and darkness to reconciliation and light. A scene of sickness, fear, and helplessness is set in the first movements, from the tangled counterpoint of the opening chorus, “October” to the explosive music of “Retrovir” (named after the brand-name of the first AIDS drug, AZT). In the central movement, “The Far West” Dlugos begins to confront his own death through the image of the western edge of North America, where cliffs fall off into water, and where the sun disappears over the horizon. In “G-9”, written while he was a patient at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, Dlugos describes his hopes for death, images of light and gentleness that are further explored in the intimate “Note to Michael.”
I chose to end this piece with George Herbert’s poem, “Heaven.” Herbert, another poet-priest, and another man who died too young just shy of 40, explores the idea of life after death through a conversation between a voice and its echo. Here, I imagine the voice of Tim Dlugos speaking back to us from that place where he has found “Light, joy, and leisure.” The ending is not a happy one, but it’s a hopeful one.