Nebraska to host world premiere of Cather-inspired song cycle

· 3 min read

Nebraska to host world premiere of Cather-inspired song cycle

A collection of Willa Cather's correspondence
Craig Chandler | University Communication and Marketing

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln will host the world premiere of a new composition of 11 songs based on the letters of Willa Cather.


The Omni Quartet and American mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby will perform the song cycle, composed by Richard Stout, from 3 to 5 p.m. April 23 at the Ethel S. Abbott Auditorium in Sheldon Museum of Art. The concert is free and open to the public.

Stout, a faculty member at Baldwin Wallace University and trombonist with the Cleveland Orchestra, has been commissioned by the Willa Cather Archive of the University Libraries and the Cather Project in the Department of English to celebrate the completion of the digital humanities project The Complete Letters of Willa Cather.


Stout was looking for inspiration to compose for voice and string quartet and found it sitting on his bookshelf in the form of the book “Selected Letters of Willa Cather,” co-edited by Stout’s mother, Janis P. Stout, and Andrew Jewell, chair of digital strategies and co-director of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.

“I initially was drawn to several letters and thought: ‘Oh, my gosh! They sort of sing off the page,’” Richard Stout said.

Stout then contacted Jewell for permission to use the letters for his composition and found himself being commissioned for the Nebraska celebration.

“The Complete Letters of Willa Cather is a resource built, in part, to generate other works,” Jewell said. “We knew it would influence scholarly creations but never dared dream that Cather’s letters would inspire a musical composition like Stout’s. We are thrilled to support this distinctive piece of art. Willa Cather loved music and knew it well, and ‘Songs of Correspondence’ is a fitting tribute to her. I can’t wait to hear it performed at the premiere.”

Each song in the cycle is named after the recipient of the letters and may contain passages from several letters. The songs cover a wide range of Cather’s life, acquaintances and life experiences.

Omni Quartet

“Letters to Zoё Akins and Mariel Gere, a childhood friend, and, of course, Roscoe Cather, her brother, are represented in the cycle,” Stout said.

It took Stout a year to compose all of the songs and finish the project. He received feedback from Jewell, his mother and the performers. The challenge of putting Cather’s letters to music appealed to him, but Stout didn’t feel it was an opportunity to try new techniques in music; rather, he wanted something that rang simple and true to the author’s style.

“I hope people come away really surprised and delighted by how music and text can naturally fit together,” Stout said. “And I hope that the music will sound like something Cather would really have heard herself.”

The first hour of the concert will feature the Omni Quartet playing two pieces composed by Clint Needham and Caroline Shaw. The second hour will be the world premiere of “Songs of Correspondence.”

Recent News