Dear Theo: Letters from Vincent Van Gogh (download)
Letters from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo during the height of his mental illness are dramatically set in this extended song for tenor and percussion.
David Walton, tenor, and Erik Barsness, percussion
Voicing: tenor and 1 percussionist (5 octave marimba and auxiliary percussion)
duration: 12 minutes
As David Walton, Erik Barsness (the commissioners) and I began to discuss the specifics of this commission for tenor and percussion, I was intrigued to learn that a new song reflecting on mental illness and its effects would be a compelling subject for them. I immediately began to research poems by poets who suffered from mental illness ~ there is a long list to choose from, unfortunately. Nothing was inspiring me. I can’t remember how the idea of Vincent Van Gogh came up ~ maybe I had recently seen or pictured one of his paintings. I then discovered these letters written by Van Gogh to his brother Theo while in an asylum in the south of France. There are over 700 letters in all, and they were collected and published by Theo’s wife Johanna in 1914.
I do what I do surrendering myself to nature, without thinking of this or that.
…it’s nature that I feed on. I exaggerate, sometimes I make changes to the subject.
Nevertheless, I don’t invent the whole picture – on the contrary I find it ready made in nature but in need of unraveling.
[7 October, 1888)
To work up the heat to melt those golds and flower tones isn’t something that just anyone can do; it takes all the energy and concentration a single individual can muster.
[23 January, 1889]
Since it’s still winter here, please just let me get on with my work; if it’s the work of a madman, that’s just too bad. There’s nothing I can do about it.
[28 January, 1889]