Tenor Justin Vickers brings queer love to the front in new album of art songs
Illinois State University music professor and tenor Justin Vickers has a new album of art songs centered around the British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).
Titled “The Poet’s Echo,” the disc includes world premiere recordings of the title song cycle’s English translation for a tenor. Also new: Premiere recordings of John David Earnest’s “Songs of Hadrian,” and “Six Chinese Songs,” the latter composed as a tribute to Vickers’ late father by one of Britten’s last assistants, Colin Matthews.
The expansive album, running just over an hour, opens with Britten’s “Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo” and concludes with another world premiere recording: Britten’s “Epilogue.”
Vickers first sang Britten for his undergraduate senior recital at the University of Illinois. The Danville native didn’t know at the time he’d spend his career studying Britten and British musicology — but felt drawn to both the music and the man.
“I was scared of my shadow,” Vickers said in an interview for WGLT’s Sound Ideas. “I was scared of the idea of coming out.”
Britten’s artistic and romantic partnership with tenor Peter Pears was an open secret in the highest echelons of British society, despite homosexuality being illegal in the United Kingdom until 1967.
“I saw in the two of them an example of what I hoped I would have,” Vickers said. He and his husband recently celebrated their 10th anniversary.
A major theme explored in “The Poet’s Echo” is the expression of queerness in a musical genre that is almost wholly heteronormative.
The five-part cycle “Songs of Hadrian,” composed in 2014, is inspired by the Roman emperor Hadrian’s triste with Antinous.
“We see the love and the lust,” Vickers said. “We hear his prayers. We see his deep sense of loss and grief—and ultimately a fracturing of his sanity. … All of us can relate to that sense of being slightly on the edge of breaking.”
“Seven Songs of Michelangelo” was one of Britten’s first compositions for Pears, “born out of [Michelangelo’s] love and affection for this young Tommaso dei Cavalieri,” said Vickers. “These seven homoromantic, deeply suggestive poems were all under the aegis of, oh, it’s just Italian.”
“The Poet’s Echo” and a companion disc yet to be released were recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic. The concert hall in the Center for the Performing Arts at Illinois State became a de facto office for Vickers, sound engineer Aaron Paolucci and pianist John Orfe.
Vickers’ Fulbright Scholarship also collided with the pandemic. He selected Britten’s former home, a secluded spot in Suffolk, to pursue six months of intensive study. The nearby Snape Maltings Concert Hall houses the prestigious Aldeburgh Festival and is depicted in “The Poet’s Echo’s” cover art by Ebrahim Coetzee.
In January, Vickers became just the second School of Music faculty member granted the title of distinguished professor. (Panamanian composer Roque Cordero was the first music professor named distinguished professor four decades ago.) In his 12 years at ISU, Vickers has worked at a breakneck pace combining teaching, scholarship, writing, recording and performance.
“The Poet’s Echo” is Vickers’ second commercial release with Albany Records, following “Caledonian Scenes” in 2020, dedicated to Scottish composers. This kind of public-facing scholarship is chance for listeners to engage with music that can be difficult for some listeners on a visceral, human level.
“Uncork a bottle of wine. Sit and listen to this disc because there are so many really special, intimate moments on it,” Vickers said. “There are echoes of all of my work. There are echoes and threads connecting each of these cycles.”
The disc closes with “Epilogue,” a work Vickers discovered in the Britten/Pears archive in 2009. He was the first to perform the work live and now the first to record it.
“It’s the epilogue to ‘The Holy Sonnets of John Donne,’ which was Britten’s response to having gone to the Bergen-Belsen [Holocaust camp] immediately after the liberation and played music for the survivors,” Vickers said. “He gave them what he could give them from a place of love, from a place of knowledge that they should enjoy some normalcy and some light— and that thing that is healing about music.”
“The Poet's Echo” is available on CD, iTunes and Spotify.