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Seattle University

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Verses to Vocals

Written by Mike Thee
October 25, 2010

Sharon Cumberland, associate professor of English and director of the Creative Writing program, has been writing poetry for nearly three decades, but this month some of those pieces were delivered in a different form. Ten of Cumberland’s original works were performed musically at The Seasons Fall Music Festival in Yakima, Wash.  She was the festival’s first-ever poet-in-residence.

“You can imagine how thrilled I was to have my poems set to music that can be sung from the stage,” she says. “What a privilege!”

For six months leading up to the festival, Cumberland worked closely with the 10 professional and up-and-coming composers-in-residence who are setting her poems as “art songs”—the term for poetry set to music. One of the composers was Daron Hagen, the artistic director for the festival. Hagen’s name will be familiar to Seattle opera fans—he composed “Amelia,” which premiered last May as the first opera ever to be commissioned by The Seattle Opera. 

Cumberland sent the composers a manuscript of 60 poems to choose from and offered to compose new works. Two of the composers asked for new works, and four of 10 composers chose poems from a sequence Cumberland wrote about the death of her 5-year-old nephew, Andrew, who would have been 33 this year.  

“To have these poems set to music was an added memorial to him,” says Cumberland. “Andrew’s mother, my sister Linda, flew in from Oklahoma to come to the concert, and many members of my family also came to hear Andrew memorialized in this way. So in addition to having an exciting professional opportunity, it was a very meaningful personal opportunity as well.” 

The Seasons Music Festival also arranged for Cumberland to give two additional readings while in Yakima—at the Allied Arts of Yakima Valley, and at the Inklings Bookstore—to publicize the art song concert. The marriage of Cumberland’s words to music makes a lot of sense given her lifelong fondness for vocal music. Cumberland has been taking SU students to the opera for years—more than 300 students per year, she estimates. She also works with The Seattle Opera’s Front and Center program, which offers significantly reduced-price tickets for students.  

The Yakima festival was not the first time Cumberland’s poetry found expression in music. She wrote a libretto for the composer Ivana Themmen, and has written a number of poems to Gregorian chant, one of which was performed by the SU Choir a couple years ago.