The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

Shelter This Candle

An evocative work about a cave’s complete darkness – and our own dazzling light

Music: Elizabeth Alexander

Words: Edna St. Vincent Millay

This atmospheric and evocative work creates a world of desolate solitude, utter darkness, and the reassuring light of friendship. Sounds of wind and falling tears are woven throughout, with haunting whispers and vocal effects. The piece opens and closes with tender repetitions of the phrase “shelter this candle,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s reminder to protect the bonds of community during our darkest times.

The chamber ensemble plays a major role in this piece, with a significant introduction and dramatic interludes.

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

I gave my musical setting of this Edna St. Vincent Millay poem the evocative title Shelter this Candle, a phrase that is repeatedly sung, spoken and whispered by the chorus. But the title Millay gave her original poem is a less lyrical one, and instead spells out quite clearly what this poem is about: “To the Wife of a Sick Friend.” Yes, this dark cavern is nothing less than the painfully imperfect world where we live, where hardships can leave us overwhelmed by grief or despair. And the candle? That part is entirely up to us.


To The Wife Of a Sick Friend

Shelter this candle from the wind.
Hold it steady. In its light
The cave wherein we wander lost
Glitters with frosty stalactite,
Blossoms with mineral rose and lotus,
Sparkles with crystal moon and star,
Till a man would rather be lost than found:
We have forgotten where we are.

Shelter this candle. Shrewdly blowing
Down the cave from a secret door
Enters our only foe, the wind.
Hold it steady. Lest we stand,
Each in a sudden, separate dark,
The hot wax spattered upon your hand,
The smoking wick in my nostrils strong,
The inner eyelid red and green
For a moment yet with moons and roses,—
Then the unmitigated dark.
Alone, alone in a terrible place,
In utter dark without a face,
With only the dripping of the water on the stone,
And the sound of your tears, and the taste of my own.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

© 1928, 1955, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. From The Buck in the Snow (Harper and Brothers). Used by permission of Elizabeth Barnett, literary executor for the Millay Society



Premiere: VOICES Chorale / Lyn Ransom (Newtown, PA; Princeton, NJ)
Kansas City Chorale / Charles Bruffy (Kansas City, MO)