Three American Songs (2011) · 7 min (in three movements)

for tenor and piano

tenor, piano

Commissioned by and written for Gregory Zavracky

Program Note

The poems in this song set were written by three giants of American poetry: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman. Together, the poems tell the story of a day in nineteenth-century America. The first, “The Apology,” begins with an afternoon walk. For Emerson, inspiration comes from nature and time for solitary reflection while immersed in nature proves more fruitful than laborious drudgery. As work is finished in “The Cricket Sang,” twilight ushers in a moment of newness and calm as the land is transformed. The astronomer in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” has a comprehensive mathematical and scientific understanding of the stars. Yet to Whitman, the stars’ beauty is not quantifiable in words. He recognizes the stars’ splendor only when leaving the lecture and personally beholding them. 

De Ritis’s music for Three American Songs embodies a purely American aesthetic with its open tonalities and musical-theater influenced rhythms. In “The Apology,” the declamatory and unapologetic vocal lines illustrate the irony of Emerson’s title. The rhythmic flow of the song alternates between steady and static, as Emerson roams the woods and stops to observe the sky or enjoy the brook. In “The Cricket Sang,” an initial eighth-note “cricket” motive is developed and expanded into a fuller texture for the “vastness” and “peace” of the last verse. The large-intervals and ascending lines of “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” depict Whitman looking up to the stars and an a cappella line at the end of the song captures the “perfect silence” he experiences.

Three American Songs was premiered by Gregory Zavracky on April 17, 2011, at the Tsai Performing Arts Center, Boston University. Additional performances include by Gregory Zavracky, tenor; and Won-Hee An, piano; at Newton Church, Newton, MA, on January 26, 2012; and by Arthur Rishi, tenor; Won-Hee An, piano; at the Eliot House Library, Harvard University, at the annual Massachusetts Chapter of the Fulbright Association’s welcome event on March 25, 2012.


“The Apology”

by Ralph Waldo Emerson


Think me not unkind and rude,

That I walk alone in grove and glen;

I go to the god of the wood

To fetch his word to men.


Tax not my sloth that I

Fold my arms beside the brook;

Each cloud that floated in the sky

Writes a letter in my book.


Chide me not, laborious band,

For the idle flowers I brought;

Every aster in my hand

Goes home loaded with a thought.


There was never mystery,

But ’tis figured in the flowers,

Was never secret history,

But birds tell it in the bowers.


One harvest from thy field

Homeward brought the oxen strong;

A second crop thine acres yield,

Which I gather in a song.

“The Cricket Sang”

by Emily Dickinson


The cricket sang,

And set the sun,

And workmen finished, one by one,

Their seam the day upon.


The low grass loaded with the dew,

The twilight stood as strangers do

With hat in hand, polite and new,

To stay as if, or go.


A vastness, as a neighbor, came, ‐‐

A wisdom without face or name,

A peace, as hemispheres at home, ‐‐

And so the night became.

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

by Walt Whitman


When I heard the learn’d astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

When I was shown the charts, the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the learned astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;

Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night‐air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

View Score