The Last Letter
SATB divisi, baritone solo, fiddle | Duration c. 9’30"
When I was approached by James Jordan in 2018 to compose a work commemorating the First World War, I immediately thought of the last letter of Sullivan Ballou. Though its place in history is considerably earlier than the First World War, having been written by Sullivan on the eve of his death in the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, I feel this remarkable letter is a testament to the strength and courage that is necessary in times of war, as well as a reminder of the terrible cost that war brings upon families. I first heard of the letter while watching Ken Burns’ monumental documentary The Civil War with my father some time ago. The reading of this letter, which occurs in the very first episode of the series, is paired with a beautiful fiddle tune titled ‘Ashokan Farewell,’ originally composed by Jay Ungar in 1982 and later adopted as the title theme for the documentary.
While the inclusion of this tune in Ken Burns’ The Civil War is heart-breaking and iconic, I chose to take a different path when composing a work based on Sullivan’s last letter. As much as I love the ‘Ashokan Farewell,’ I feel that the darker subjects written about by Sullivan in his final letter were inferred rather than directly represented. The conflict between love of country and love of family saturates Sullivan’s writing – he was clearly tortured by the idea that his sense of duty, and his actions to uphold that sense of duty, would result in the destruction of his beloved Sarah’s dreamed-of future with him. Having spent his formative years as an orphan, the thought of offering that “bitter fruit,” as he described it, to his own children tormented him. He sought forgiveness – for his faults, for the pains that his actions caused his wife and children, for his foolishness and thoughtlessness.
In spite of all of this darkness, his love for Sarah and his son Edgar was undeniable and ultimately responsible for the actions that would tear him away from them. Sullivan faced his internal fears and conflicts and fought anyway, believing that the investment of his life in maintaining the relatively new American government was the best way of protecting his family and their way of life. To quote Nelson Mandela (and the many others who have said very similar things), “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”
The Last Letter seeks to find a balance between the beauty of Sullivan Ballou’s final letter to his wife and the horrific reality of the costs of war. Throughout the work, Sarah is personified by the fiddle, with the opening folk-like statement being “Sarah’s tune.” The middle section is much darker, with the choir incessantly repeating the words “forgive me,” while the baritone soloist, representing Sullivan, enumerates his faults and asks for forgiveness. The work ends very simply, with ad libitum statements in both the fiddle and baritone solo, followed by a final, unaccompanied iteration of “Sarah’s tune” - Sullivan’s final meditation on his beloved wife.
- Thomas LaVoy
Sarah, I can’t describe to you this night.
Two thousand men around me lie sleeping;
The last before death.
And I, knowing I too may die,
Am communing with God, my country
Sarah, my love for you is deathless;
It seems to bind me with mighty cables
That none but God can break.
And yet my duty bears me on,
With all these chains,
To the battlefield.
Sarah, never forget how much I love you;
That when my last breath escapes me,
It will whisper your name.
Sarah, forgive my many faults;
Forgive the pains that I have caused you,
Forgive my foolishness, forgive my thoughtlessness.
Sarah, how selfish I have been,
Knowing that my love of country
Would burn to ashes your hopes of future years.
O is this weakness, is this dishonorable -
That, having lived as an orphan,
I would feed that bitter fruit to my own children?
Sarah, if the dead can come back
And move around those they loved,
I shall always be near you.
Sarah, do not think me dead -
Think I am gone, and wait for thee,
For we shall meet again.