On June 1, 2021, Kerry Wilkerson with Virginia ACDA—the Virginia chapter of the American Choral Directors Association—spoke with composer Henry Dehlinger. In this insightful interview, Dehlinger discusses what inspires his choral works, large and small, and offers insight into his distinct compositional voice and aesthetic.
The two also discuss some of his landmark choral works, such as Kohelet, his cantata in five movements that premieres in spring 2022 and features Wilkerson as the bass-baritone soloist. They also talk about his latest Christmas hymns and carols for mixed chorus.
Read the interview below or in the Virginia ACDA newsletter.
Sing for Virginia: Meet the Composer
A conversation between Kerry Wilkerson and Henry Dehlinger
This is the second of a series of Meet the Composer conversations intended to introduce all of you to the wealth of talent in our state. Kerry recently had the opportunity to chat with Henry Dehlinger, an Oakton, VA-based composer:
KW: Where are you based?
HD: My wife Lauren and I live in Oakton, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. We also spend part of the year in California, where we both grew up
KW: When did you start composing?
HD: I started composing in earnest in 2015. Prior to that, I was arranging. I often quip that arranging was my gateway drug to composing.
KW: What is your primary instrument?
HD: The piano is my primary instrument, always has been, although I came to my love for the human voice quite honestly. During my formative years, I sang with the San Francisco Boys Chorus. Now that I am a choral composer, I have come full circle, and I am grateful for that.
KW: What is your favorite subject matter for choral works?
HD: I am often asked, “What inspires you?” I derive my inspiration from a wide range of subjects, both secular and sacred. That said, most of my catalog is secular, and poetry inspires most of these works. My favorites include Night Piece with text by James Joyce. The poetry is replete with ecclesiastical imagery. My treatment of it starts as a subdued choral meditation that swells with colorful harmonies to give it the sense of celebrating the night sky.
Bahnhofstrasse, also a poem by James Joyce, underscores the fleeting nature of youth. It focuses on a moment in time when the poet experienced debilitating pain while walking down the street. It stopped him cold. The musical language is minimalist and meditative, with repeating cycles of broken chords in the accompaniment that reiterate a simple, eerie motif while the melody floats wistfully above. It’s mournful and plaintive and one of my most popular works.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. I also enjoy writing choral settings of love poems. My latest is Images, an a cappella setting of Richard Aldington’s modernist love poem, where I’ve combined precise images of longing with soaring melodies and seductive harmonic progressions. Poems such as these draw their inspirations from the inner depths of our psyches. The musical setting should sweep audiences - and interpreters - from understanding the text with the head to feeling the combined music and text with the heart.
The only way to do that well is to select texts with which I, as a composer, can be truly in love. I think Poulenc said it best: “The musical transposition of a poem must be an act of love, not a marriage of con-venience.”
Works by other composers can also be sources of inspiration. A friend of mine once quipped that Kohelet, my cantata in five movements premiering this coming season, is the love child of Leonard Bernstein and Carl Orff. There is really something to that, though. In Kohelet, which is a sacred work, I combined Biblical Hebrew text and lush, modal melodies (think Bernstein's Chichester Psalms) with colorful harmonic textures and energetic meters (think Orff's Carmina Burana). I think everyone should also know that I composed the bass-baritone solo in Kohelet especially for your voice, Kerry.
My current project is also sacred - a Requiem for SATB chorus, soloists, and orchestra in memory of a recently departed friend, Neil Dellar, who was very active in the choral community here in the Washington metro area.
Regardless of inspiration, once I start putting notes on staves, it is musical ideas that inform my creative decisions. A musical idea can be a lyrical melody or a theme. It can be a leitmotif. I’ll create a leitmotif to serve as a distinct musical "voice" for each major character or idea in a choral work. It can be adapted in many ways to complement the evolving story, regardless of whether I am scoring for a small ensemble or large chorus and orchestra. It can also be a simple chord progression or a richly textured opening chord full of impressionistic colors and gorgeous dissonances.
I then weave these fragments into meaningful musical experiences, my own vernacular, if you will. The result is a sound that is unique and recognizable in all my choral compositions. It reflects the present yet harkens to the past. It is evocative but also familiar, universal but also personal.
KW: What is your favorite choral ensemble? SSAA, TTBB, SATB?
HD: I write mostly for SATB chorus, but I have also written TTBB arrangements of my more popular choral works. One that I composed specifically for TTBB chorus is Memorial Day. It is a tribute to the fallen men and women of the U.S. armed forces with text by Joyce Kilmer, an American poet and fallen hero, who was killed by an enemy sniper’s bullet during World War I.
Someday, I would love to compose works for boys or girls chorus.
KW: Do you like to include instruments/instrumentation with choral compositions?
HD: Absolutely. My settings with accompaniment run the gamut - piano, chamber ensemble, orchestra. The initial treatment depends on where I think the piece is headed first in terms of performance – a small chorale, a large chorale, a chamber group, or a larger instrumental group. Quite a number of my works have several instrumentations available as I see how the interest is developing and who’s interested in performing them. I will say, though, there’s nothing like being able to write for a large chorus and orchestra because it gives me an opportunity to add interesting colors and dramatic weight.
KW: Do you compose exclusively for choruses, or do you have other works you would like for us to know about?
HD: One of my major works is a setting of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot for orchestra and solo soprano. It’s premiering this fall with the National Philharmonic. I also love composing for chamber ensembles. I recently completed two works for cello and piano. The first is Fantasia in Groove, a concert suite of urban impressions, which evokes the fast-paced, stop-and-go groove of big-city life. The second is my Cello Sonata in C Minor.
KW: Where can we listen to your works? YouTube? Pro webpage? etc.
HD: I invite everyone to visit my website at https://HenryDehlinger.com. All of my works are there, along with accompanying audio, program notes, and links to purchase scores and choral octavos. I suppose this is a good time to mention that I just released a new album with you and your lovely wife, soprano Danielle Talamantes. It’s called At That Hour, and it features my art songs based on some of the pieces we’ve talked about here. As you know, we’ve gotten a great response and Spotify has it on its High Notes playlist, representing “the best new releases in opera and vocal music.”
You can also hear my works on all of the widely available channels - Apple Music, Amazon, YouTube, Pandora, Tidal, Deezer, Idagio, and Primephonic.
KW: Are you available for commissions?
KW: How much time do you need for a commission?
HD: For a short, four-part choral work under five minutes with piano accompaniment or unaccompanied, you should give me two to four weeks to complete. Perhaps, one to four months for a twenty-minute choral work accompanied by a chamber ensemble. You need to give at least six months, perhaps longer, for large-scale choral works over thirty minutes with orchestral accompaniment. Keep in mind that a composer is likely working on multiple projects at the same time.
KW: What else would you like to say to the choral directors reading this?
HD: I suppose the thing that’s under wraps is that I’m working on a body of Christmas music. My latest offering is Ring Out, Ye Bells, a joyous and accessible choral setting of African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s reverent Christmas hymn. There’s also Hodie! - a new setting of the joyous Latin text. Also check out I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, a new choral setting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem, and Mistletoe,a lively setting of Walter de la Mare’s much-loved Christmas poem, sung in two-and four-part round. At some point, I’ll get these recorded, too. For now, I’m just having a ball reimagining holiday music the way I want to hear it.