Chicago (2018)
for soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone, and piano (4′)

words by Carl Sandburg

My most substantial vocal piece to date, Chicago is a setting of Carl Sandburg’s best-known poem, which is an homage to the Windy City. It is a poem that I’ve loved for some time – I think I first read it about 10 or 15 years ago – and I’ve always appreciated the immediacy and ruggedness of its language, so different from the language of a more well-behaved poem.

Dramatically, the baritone is cast as the poem’s antagonist, criticizing the city for its failures to control its prostitutes, killers, and poverty. The other three singers act as a Greek chorus of sorts, defending the city as “husky”, “proud”, and “a tall bold slugger”. While writing it, I was grateful for the rich parallelisms in the text, the many two-syllable words: brawling, husky, and stormy from the protagonists and wicked, crooked, and brutal from the antagonist.

As might be expected, I got to know the poem better by writing the piece. By the end, I felt much more ambivalent about the argument between the two sides. Is the vitality of Chicago enough reason to excuse the threats to public safety and health that the antagonist describes? Should we really accept killers going free and children in desperate hunger as an acceptable cost for the ruggedness of Chicago? In line with this, I tried to give the criticisms a stronger presence than they have in the original poem, though, in the end, the deck is stacked against them: the protagonists get the first and final words.