Sing Me to Heaven – the Real Story

It’s time to offer the whole story, the full length unexpurgated account, complete with never-before-seen footage, the “lost” episodes, the secrets behind the special effects, and much more, of Sing Me to Heaven.

As a composer I am asked more questions about this little piece than any other title in my catalog. People in general, but singers in particular, seem taken by the way in which the words and the music of this short anthem work together to create an effective and moving experience for performers and audiences alike. This acceptance has led to literally thousands of performances of the work since its publication in 1991, as well as hundreds of recordings (most of them posted on YouTube!). In an age when a music publisher considers a choral octavo to be a “best seller” if its sales reach five thousand copies in a year, and when a best seller is considered remarkable if it maintains that level for more than two or three years running, sales of the print version of Sing Me to Heaven hit twenty thousand copies annually in its second year and remain at above ten thousand annually a quarter century later.

Any explanation that we might offer for this phenomenon must inevitably take into account the way that the text and the music of this work combine to create an effect more powerful than either could achieve alone. As its composer, I am quite naturally aware of what works well in the musical setting, but I am also convinced that what works in the music was very much guided by, and drawn from, the wonderful words given to me by my collaborator, Jane Griner.

The commission to write Sing Me to Heaven came from Carol Hunter, the conductor of a northern Virginia community chorus called VOCE. Like directors of literally hundreds of similar volunteer choral organizations across the country, Carol tries to balance her programs with music chosen from all periods and styles, including the premiere of an occasional brand new work, never before performed by any other chorus nor heard by any other audience.

Carol described what she wanted as, “a piece that describes the way that we, as singers, feel about music in our lives.” This struck me as likely to be problematic—although I am constantly reading poetry in search of texts for musical settings, I knew of no such existing poem in English literature. Worse, experience suggested that my chances of finding something so specific were not good.

Fortunately, I next did what I always do when the search for wisdom falters and I lose my way: I whined to my wife.

Jane responds: He didn’t whine, exactly.  But he did hint … a lot.  And it was something we had frequently talked about. 

The idea for this text was born out of a lifetime of being surrounded by musicians. My mother was a piano teacher. My father sang in the community chorus. I played in orchestras from the age of thirteen. Classical music was virtually the only music I knew, even as a teenager. Though I was extraordinarily blessed with a well-rounded childhood, being surrounded by professional musicians as a teenager meant I discovered that these people were… different.  

Eavesdropping on hundreds of conversations (and later having hundreds of my own with musician friends), I learned that musicians don’t use the same landmarks in their lives that other people do. I never heard a musician say “Oh yes, 1972, I turned 34 that year”. I heard, “Ahh, 1972, I played Stravinsky with Ozawa that year”. Not “My daughter was born in 1985”, but “My daughter was born the same year I played Messiah with original instruments for the first time ”; Not “The family spent the vacation in Aruba that year”, but “That was the year I sang with Robert Shaw and we recorded [insert choral masterwork here]”.  

The commission for Sing Me to Heaven came shortly after another one of those conversations with long-time friend and choral musician Dr. Byron McGilvray. In the course of talking about friends and family he mentioned that at a funeral he had recently attended the choir had sung something from the Brahms Requiem. We had that in common. Musicians from the community chorus in which my father had sung for years, came to perform “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place” at his funeral. The conversation continued as we remarked on how musicians measure and mark their lives not with birthdays, vacations, or even people, but with music.

This was the discussion fresh in my mind when Dan worried aloud that he needed a text that addressed how singers felt about music in their lives. The idea of writing texts for Dan was still a novel one and I wasn’t at all certain this would work, but we really knew of nothing in literature that would be appropriate for this piece, so I said I’d try it.

Dan: With Jane having signed on to the project I was able to relax slightly. Although I didn’t know what manner of text she might produce, I had the advantage of knowing that she was already conversant with the problems composers face when trying to render words practically singable for performers and simultaneously understandable for listeners. She would be unlikely to end a line with a vowel which might sound awkward or strained when held for several beats, as the endings of lines frequently are in vocal music. She would strive to make her expressions concise enough that extending them over the time required to sing a phrase would not leave a listener lost, having forgotten how the thing began. She would expend considerable effort to make everything just as simple as possible, but no simpler. All these things and many more were second nature to her because she was the daughter of a baritone and an alto, and had married a composer.

None of these advantages are available to me when I am working with a poet who has inconsiderately expired before my needs became apparent. It’s like they have a union or something.

In those days I was still working a “day gig” in addition to composition, and I remember heading off to work with cautious optimism that her efforts would be rewarded.

Jane: Writing texts makes me cranky. Whatever talent I may have is insufficient to make me facile and I never seem to have much control over the process, and that makes me even crankier. Some people carry this fanciful picture of the process – the lone, female figure wandering out in the woods, who stops, sits under a tree and magically pours out these wonderful words onto paper. I sit in the middle of our king-sized bed with a lined tablet, a mechanical pencil, and a Roget’s by my side.

Sometimes I have a bit of a start – a few single words, or a couple of phrases that have haunted me. After the first thirty minutes or so, most of the lines written on the page are marked out or have lines and arrows connecting them to other lines which snake up the margins or around the top of the page. It is not pretty. Periodically I have to stop and “assemble” what I am actually keeping, in order, on a clean page. There is much muttering, exasperated sighing, and threats of giving it all up and writing a new version of “Roses are Red” instead.

The premise that there are times in our lives when nothing but music can express the intensity of what we are feeling was the seminal idea for this text. I have to admit that even shortly after I write a text, I can’t really remember “where the ideas came from” or how I thought to put together certain phrases. I do know that the first time I called to read what I had written to Daniel, I knew it was not the final text.

Dan: Although it wasn’t yet exactly what we wanted, I could already see that Jane was on the verge of something extraordinary, something which would call forth the best that my own talent could provide and which would challenge my skills to match in musical expression the evocative intensity and power of her words. We spoke for a few minutes about specific passages which needed further polishing and we hung up.

Jane: It’s always good to have the ears of the composer to help – well, almost always. The bones were there, the beginning didn’t really need any changes.  Another 45 minutes or so of work and I called Dan again.

Dan: This time we were much closer, and we both knew it. There was a certain temptation to “grab it and run” and I’m sure that a fine little piece could have been made from the text as it stood at that moment.

But I’m greedy. I wanted the perfect text, and I was perfectly willing to torture my poor wife and sacrifice any amount of her time and effort to get it.

“That’s almost it, “ I said with breathless excitement, “You’re nearly there. Almost.”

Jane: Almost….oh that’s helpful!  He was right, but sometimes the most frustrating part of the writing is the last 10% – and it frequently takes 50% of the time.  I revised and refined, and called him again, this time with threats.  “If this isn’t it, you get to write it.”  I read him the text.  There was silence.  Good silence.  Then, very quietly, “I’ll be home soon.”

Dan: I remember nothing of my drive home that night, although I’m sure that phrases from the text were swirling around on levels of my mind both conscious and subconscious. I only know that when I arrived I went to the keyboard, text in hand, and began immediately to craft a musical setting for these words which spoke so powerfully to me.

Years later I saw a cartoon with which I had an instant sense of identification. The scene showed two white-coated scientists deep in discussion in front of a chalkboard entirely covered with an arcane mathematical formula. “I think,” says one to the other, “that you should be more specific here in step Four.” His hand points to a spot midway on the chalkboard where you can just make out the words, “Next, a miracle occurs.”

There was something miraculous about what occurred next, because a piece of this length would typically have occupied my free time for a week or ten days of scribbling, backing up, rubbing out, and rewriting. Instead, I emerged an hour and a half later with a finished piece in which I would later change only one note, the final one, before publication.

Not once in my entire career has such a thing happened again, nor do I expect it to. I stress this because I don’t want to give anyone a false impression: composition is hard work, frequently an extremely laborious and meticulous process. Although I am quick to acknowledge that inspiration plays a critical role, I am also clear that receiving the inspiration is only the beginning. Much labor and great care will be required, often over an extended period of time, to carefully and gradually turn that inspirational germ into something that musicians can actually perform.

Jane: Almost every choir director or singer who has sung SMTH has a story to tell us. We love hearing them. They touch us, humble us, and inspire us.

I think one of the first phenomena we noticed was what happened when Dan judged High School choral festivals. We would be getting ready to depart, coats on, walking down the hall towards the doors when 5 or 6 students would race down the hall towards us, breathless and excited, and ask if they could sing Sing Me to Heaven for Dan. Frequently it had not been sung at the Festival, but when they’d found out who he was, they’d searched the halls to find him.

“We sang it last year,” they’d say, “and it is our favorite piece!”  Then this group of students (usually some odd combination like one soprano, four altos, no tenors and a bass) who had just seconds before, been giggling and awkward, would get very quiet and serious. They would look at each other, breathe together, and start singing. These were never technically perfect performances, but musically, their hearts and their director’s care obvious, they were wonderful.

Leaving after one of these experiences, and (I suspect) slightly embarrassed by the attentions of these singers, Dan commented on how remarkable it was that High School students were so affected by this piece. We decided that at least part of the desire of these students to sing to him was their desire to show him that they “got it”.  To have him acknowledge them as members of that very exclusive club that measure their life in music.

Dan: Well, that’s about it. The rest, as they say, is history. It’s not often that a mere composer has the opportunity to touch so many lives, lift so many hearts, and I am humbled at having been the Creator’s tool in bringing this to pass. It rarely gets any better.