Feb 14

Concert Preview: Lee Hoiby, Last Letter Home

Pfc Jesse Givens, 1969-2003

Saturday night’s Choral Juxtaposition concert is quickly approaching!  I’ve already previewed one of the piece, Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen in an earlier post.  Today, I wanted to talk a little about one of the most heartfelt pieces of choral music I’ve heard.  Here is an excerpt from Saturday’s program notes about it:

When composer Lee Hoiby first encountered a letter from fallen soldier Jesse A. Givens, who was killed in Iraq in 2003, he was struck by its intimacy.  The letter, written by Givens to his wife in case he was killed in action, was featured in the New York Times and the HBO documentary Last Letters Home.  When Hoiby was later approached by a men’s choir consortium led by the Minnesota ensemble Cantus to compose a new work, he suggested setting Givens’ letter.  The result was a work that has become an important addition to the men’s choir repertoire.  But the success of the original setting led to two more versions: the version for solo baritone and piano performed this evening, and a mixed choir version, also with piano.  Together, these three versions of Last Letter Home illustrate beautifully the way that composers will reexamine a work in giving it a “second life”.  The original men’s version is largely chordal, with the rhythm of the work indivisible from the text.  Once Hoiby added the more flowing, arpeggiated piano accompaniment for the solo song, he decided to keep that for the mixed choir version as well.  Some conductors have chosen to graft that piano accompaniment (or its orchestral version) onto the original a cappella male choir version—in this case, the various possibilities allow for a number of artistic approaches to this moving work.


The Dessoff men who have been learning this work have found the emotional content of it deeply moving.  For some, it brought back memories of their own military service; for others (like me), it reminded us of long months when beloved family members or friends were serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, and our fears for their safety.  Many fathers have spoken to me about how they think of their own children when they sing these words– others are sons who think of their own fathers and letters they have received from them.  Many have poked around online to find more material about the piece and Pfc Givens; one of the basses led me to the following blog, which includes a beautiful performance of the original men’s choir version of the work.


Even apart from the emotional content of the work, it is enlightening to compare the original TBB version contained in that blog with Hoiby’s other versions.  Below are three different permutations: the first for solo baritone with piano; then the SATB version which is essentially a hybrid between the TBB harmonies and the piano part that Hoiby added for the solo song.  Finally, a particularly spine-tingling version, the New York premiere (at Trinity Church Wall Street), in which the TBB version is blended with an orchestral version of the piano part added for the solo song.  In this case, it is sung by Army musicians, giving the piece a special poignancy.