“I’m a sucker for anniversaries,” composer Bruce Trinkley says. “You name it. Whenever a centennial comes along, I want to be a part of it.”
Trinkley’s current project is setting ten of poet Theodore Roethke’s poems to music. Roethke, who was born in 1908, taught for awhile at Penn State, where Trinkley teaches. All of the poems that Trinkley has selected come from Roetke’s first collection, Open House, published when Roethke was at Penn State.
"I like centennials because they attract so much attention," Trinkley says. "They shine the spotlight on the person once again."
When setting poems, Trinkley follows his gut reaction. Is there something in the language (what the poet is saying and how he’s saying it) that attracts him? "You need to believe strongly in the poem if you’re going to set it to music," Trinkley says. "At some point it becomes almost a collaboration. Setting a poem is like a reading, with notes and rhythms. And if you’re going to work so closely with it, you have to believe in the material."
Trinkley doesn’t pick and choose stanzas. "If I can’t set the whole poem, I’ll find another poem," he says. He notes that writing for the voice is like writing for different instruments. He starts by reading the poem out loud a number of times, to find the natural rhythms of the piece and the melody of the words.
"Some poems ask to be read quietly," Trinkley says. "Others shout to the masses and call for a full concert choir and an orchestra."
Ted Roethke, who was born in 1908 and died in 1963, is one of the most significant American poets of the twentieth century. Born in Saginaw, Michigan, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for The Waking: Poems 1933-1953. His collection Words for the Wind (1957) won the National Book Award, as well as many other regional awards. He also won the National Book Award for The Far Field, which was published posthumously in 1964.
Bruce Trinkley, Professor Emeritus of Music at the Pennsylvania State University, taught composition, orchestration, and opera literature; and conducted the Penn State Glee Club, a sixty-member men’s chorus. He has composed numerous works for choir, orchestra, theatre and dance, including The Bawd’s Opera, a ballad opera which won the BMI National Varsity Show Award, and The War Prayer, based on a short story by Mark Twain. He has also composed many incidental scores for theatre productions. He wrote the Pennsylvania Bicentennial Wagon Train Show which played in every state in the Union, totaling nearly 2,000 performances in 1975 and America’s bicentenial year of 1976.