Fred Lerdahl

The Music and Writings of Composer Fred Lerdahl

Program note for Cornstalks


Cornstalks was composed in May 2012 for the New York Virtuoso Singers at the request of its conductor, Harold Rosenbaum. Scored for small double chorus a cappella, this short piece is a homophonic, antiphonal, and mostly syllabic setting of the poem Zea by the American poet Richard Wilbur. My title replaces the obscure "Zea," the name of the genus to which corn belongs, with the ordinary word that is the poem's subject matter. Beyond its precise observation and beautiful language, the poem attracted me because as a child I often played hide-and-seek in the cornfields at my aunt's farm in Wisconsin.

Wilbur's poem describes cornstalks in autumn, after "their fruit is picked," in which "one white corn-leaf...can seem to be the sole thing breathing." Each tercet is laid out in the manner of a haiku (lines of five, seven, and five syllables), with the first and third lines rhyming. The nine tercets in turn group into three parts. My setting incorporates some but not all aspects of this elegant structure. My main concern was to reflect the poem's combination of apparent simplicity and underlying depth of meaning.

Fred Lerdahl

"Zea" by Richard Wilbur

Once their fruit is picked,
The cornstalks lighten, and though
Keeping to their strict

Rows, begin to be
The tall grasses that they are-
Lissom, now, and free

As canes that clatter
In island wind, or plumed reeds
Rocked by lake water.

Soon, if not cut down,
Their ranks grow whistling-dry, and
Blanch to lightest brown,

So that, one day, all
Their ribbonlike, down-arcing
Leaves rise up and fall

In tossed companies,
Like goose wings beating southward
Over the changed trees.

Later, there are days
Full of bare expectancy,
Downcast hues, and haze,

Days of an utter
Calm, in which one white corn-leaf,
Oddly aflutter

Its fabric sheathing
A gaunt stem, can seem to be
The sole thing breathing.


all materials copyright Fred Lerdahl 2009