Elmira Composer’s Arrangement of Clemens Family Poem Performed at Mark Twain House by Hartford Chamber Ensemble

Last night, in collaboration with the Mark Twain House & Museum, the Voices of Concinnity Chamber Ensemble debuted their arrangement of Dan Forrest’s “Good Night, Dear Heart.”

The lyrics of “Good Night, Dear Heart” are lines inscribed on the headstone of Susy Clemens, buried at Woodlawn Cemetary in 1896. Sam Clemens lightly adapted the lines from a poem by Robert Richardson, replacing the name “Annette” (which is also the title of Richardson’s poem) with the phrase “Dear Heart.” Many contemporary commentators inaccurately attributed the poem itself to Twain, provoking him to have Richardson’s name added to the headstone years later.

Dan Forrest, the composer of “Good Night, Dear Heart,” grew up in the Elmira area, becoming familiar with Twain lore and the Clemens gravesite at Woodlawn. When his family experienced their own tragic loss, he was reminded of the Richardson verse. He describes the occasion for the composition on his professional website:

A few years ago, my brother and his wife found out that the four month old girl that they were soon to adopt from Ethiopia had fallen ill and passed away. They had been making plans for her, staring endlessly at her picture, and loving her from across the ocean, so the news was devastating. God’s plans were not for her to ever see the people who had loved her from halfway around the world, but for her to be taken instead to His loving arms. For me, life circumstances (whether euphoric or tragic) don’t usually translate into musical inspiration; the two typically remain separate. The night they received this news, though, I found myself longing to pour out a musical elegy. My search for a suitable text led me to a picture from a cemetery in my hometown, where the great American author Mark Twain and his family are buried. My brother and I, from our youth, have known the poem that Twain placed on the tombstone of his beloved daughter Susy when she died unexpectedly at age 24 and left him heartbroken. I was stunned by the bittersweet irony of this text being from our hometown, and in honor of a beloved daughter who died unexpectedly. I wrote this setting that night; it was quickly added to an upcoming concert and premiered only one week later, as an elegy for Etsegenet and a reminder of the orphans of Ethiopia.

For Twain, life circumstances were often translated into musical inspiration, to borrow Forrest’s phrasing. Matt Seybold recent wrote about the central role music played in Twain’s grieving process. Last night, Dr. Seybold joined the artistic director of Voices of Concinnity, Sarah Kaufold, the School Programs Coordinator at the Hartford Twain House, Dr. Erin Bartram, and Hartford historian, Steve Courtney to talk about Twain’s relationship to music and to premier the Voices of Concinnity performance of “Good Night, Dear Heart,” recorded on the porch of the house where Susy passed away. You can listen to the archived conversation embedded below (or at the Mark Twain House Facebook Page). Educators may be especially interested in Dr. Bartram’s exciting new remote learning initiatives!