Beauty Intolerable


A songbook based on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. 


“What Lips My Lips” performed by Helen Huang at Ravinia, August, 2015

0.24 – First Fig
1:53 – Sonnet: I, being born a woman
5:10 – Recuerdo
10:40 – Hyacinth
15:22 – Sonnet: Only until this cigarette has ended
20:45 – The Penitent
25:25 – She is Overheard Singing
31:40 – Thursday
34:10 – Tristan
43:48 – An Ancient Gesture
50:20 – Aubade
1:01:20 – A Visit to the Asylum
1:05:15 – Sonnet: Mindful of you
1:11:20 – Sonnet: What lips my lips have kissed
1:17:59 – Sonnet: Love, though for this you riddle me with darts
1:23:06 – First Fig

I became passionate about the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay around 2011. I contemplated writing an opera about her and researched her deeply, but eventually, because it was so delicious just setting her poetry, I decided to compose an entire Songbook and put the idea of an opera on the back-burner for now. There are 14 songs plus two processionals (short rounds for 3 female voices together) in the Songbook. Some songs are more suitable for high voice and others for low voice. Some will work with either kind of voice. The songs can be performed in their entirety (we did the premiere with recitations of the poetry between each song and the two processionals bringing the three singers onto and off the stage) but a selection of songs for one singer works as well.

Millay’s poetry is powerful, honest, romantic, whimsical, deeply American and suits me perfectly as a composer. Courtesy of the Millay Society and its director, Peter Bergman, I had private tours of her house and the grounds at Steepletop, her home for the last 25 years of her life, which is just 10 minutes from my house in Austerlitz, Columbia County. I’ve seen her extravagant and petite gowns, her private pictures, her bedroom where she entertained many a person, the private cabin in the woods where she dlligently wrote for 4 hours a day, and even her private library where she stayed up late reading. I feel like I know her well.

Edna was a powerful and romantic figure — an idol in her day (1892-1950). She earned a substantial living from the sale of her poetry and toured the country from coast to coast giving readings to sold out audiences. She even filled the Hollywood Bowl with people eager to hear and catch a glimpse of this legendary icon. She was a feminist, a femme fatale, an intellectual, a devoted friend, wife, and lover, an avid naturalist and gardener, and even an owner of race horses. This is a woman who, in spite of long bouts with ill-health, lived life intensely and for the most part, joyously.

Edna’s voice is strong and accessible and I found her poetry easy to set because her intention is clear. Internal rhyme schemes abound – offering the composer all kinds of phrasing options. Her “Americaness” inspired me to delve into popular American forms. Seen through the prism of my “classical” voice, the listener may perceive elements of jazz, folk, and even rap. For each poem, my goal was to create a unique musical world. One of the more exotic poems, Aubade, is even based on an Indian raga.

2018 Sheila Silver © All Rights Reserved.