Rose Riddle Rainbow (complete cycle)


A three-movement suite for three soloists and divided SSA choir, Rose/Riddle/Rainbow is a creative, choral response to contemporary social issues.  Inspired by the powerful heritage of the African-American spiritual, each movement’s original music and text include fragments of a companion spiritual.

A licensed copy is required for each member performing.


The first movement, “Little Rose”, is a lullaby for a refugee mother to sing to her child (Steal Away, Balm in Gilead).  The middle movement, “Riddle: Can You See Me?”, is a meditation on societal invisibility/visibility (Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen).  The final movement, “I’ve Got a Rainbow”, is a song of hope and solidarity in the face of the long struggle for justice (Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder).


Commissioned by Lorelei Ensemble, Rose/Riddle/Rainbow was first performed in Boston’s Marsh Chapel in June 2017.  Lorelei performed the original solo version of the piece, with one singer on each of the nine parts.  The work is structured so that three soloists are featured in each movement, and the other six parts supply accompanying and ensemble textures.  Thus, treble and women’s choirs can perform it with a single set of soloists and divided SSA choir.

Program notes for the premiere performance:

The invitation to re-envision spirituals for the 21st century as part of the Lorelei Ensemble’s “Witness” concert set up a stimulating creative dynamic for me, which I posed as the following question: How can I pay homage to the essential expressive, musical, and thematic qualities of spirituals while creating new music and text that reflect such current realities as the Syrian civil war/refugee crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the threat of tyranny at home and abroad?  After months of creative gestation and many weeks of hard work, Rose/Riddle/Rainbow is my three-movement answer to that question.

Little Rose is a lullaby for a newborn child born into turbulent times.  Single phrases from the spiritual Steal Away are heard from the very beginning as ambient texture, suggesting a storm: “green trees are bending” and “My Lord, he calls me…in the thunder.” But the only actual quote is the murmured phrase: “I ain’t got long to stay here.”  Every child’s time in “the garden” is short, and soon enough independence comes, and the fragile flower must make its way out in the world, beyond the safety of the “garden walls” of the parental embrace.  Verses in G minor alternate with a chorus in Bb major, reflecting both the fears and hopes of any parent for the flourishing of their child. A single melodic phrase from the spiritual Balm in Gilead is heard in the final chorus with the words “little rose, born to heal the wounds of Time.”  Each generation is time-worn humanity’s renewal of itself, its healing “balm,” its fresh chance to try again.  Many families, mine included, have felt a return of hope with the birth of a child coming at a needed time, after great loss.

Riddle is woven of three basic threads.  The first is the question the singers pose directly to the audience: “Can you see me?”  This phrase is meant as a spiritual riddle, as a Zen koan to ponder.  How clearly do we see the people around us?  Are they visible to us, or are they invisible?  Do their stories matter to us? The other two threads can be heard as competing voices inside each of us, one telling us we don’t matter, that no one cares, and the other telling us that we are precious.  For one, I took the words from the spiritual Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen and built a repetitive antiphonal texture in E minor.  For the other, in G major, I took the basic melodic shape from that same spiritual’s primary phrase, but gave it new words with an opposite meaning: “My story’s written down in the Book of Life.”  Throughout the piece, these two threads compete against each other, one rising in strength as the other abates.  The soloists embody many voices of individuals in our society, each asking “Can you see me? Will you try?”

I’ve Got a Rainbow is a fantasia on a single phrase from the work song Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder.  It is a song of perseverance and triumph, conveying a sense of transfiguration along the lines of Alvin Ailey’s iconic dance “Cry,” in which a woman rises up through the struggles of her life into great, ecstatic leaps of power and beauty.  The image of the rainbow and its “arc” shape also invited the inclusion of a few words from a quote of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. about redemptive struggle: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There was almost a verse about Trump in this piece, but I settled for a metaphor instead: “Truth be told, there’ll be rain, truth be told, it’s raining NOW” (and the fortissimo 9-part chord heard at that moment adequately conveys the collective sentiment.)  The other essential aspect of this movement is the power of community to redeem the individual, as the other singers carry the “dropped dreams” of the soloist and return them to her, singing “your dream is my dream, my dream is yours.”  Individually, we can take comfort in the promise of our dreams, as if it were a “rainbow wrapped around our shoulder,” but collectively, we can be the rainbow for each other.  Our support for each other builds a world in which our children – our “little roses” – are loved, and truly seen, all the way through their lives into their furthest blooming.

Additional information


SSA double choir and soloists

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