Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax approached me in 1993 about writing a piece that would be of educational as well as aesthetic value to listeners young and old(er). The idea of creating a series of “portraits” of one heroic woman evolved into a different format when we invited Maya Angelou to create the text for the work. We discussed the idea of several portraits of heroic but nonetheless anonymous women throughout history. Out of the five poems Dr. Angelou wrote, I chose to set four – mostly out of consideration for the length of the work, which I wanted to keep in the twenty-minute range. A rough draft of the four movements/songs was made in December 1997 at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, and was not resumed until July 1998. It was completed in early August of that year at the Marlboro Music Festival, where I was serving as resident composer for that summer.
The essential questions that came into play in setting these beautiful texts was – who is speaking in each poem; and what are they saying? The result of my interpretation of those questions is the music that resulted. Any other “musical” explanations would be, for me, not only redundant but an attempt to do the very thing that my music (and all music) strives to do on its own.
— Richard Danielpour
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