Phantoms and Visitations


Phantoms and Visitations


song cycle for tenor and piano

  • Premiere: 5 October 2007 / The Phoenix Concerts / Church of Saint Matthew and Saint Timothy / Paul Sperry, tenor; Jocelyn Dueck, piano
  • Instrumentation: tenor and piano
  • Duration: 15'
  • Text: Gilda Lyons (adapted from public domain sources)

Program Note

1. Ghostly Phenomena 
2. The Phantom Rat
3. Apparitions at the Moment of Passing
4. The Queen and the Countess (Court Records)
5. Hauntings
6. In County Wicklow

As I come from a family that elevates the act of storytelling to an art form, the idea of adapting a handful of ghostly tales into a song cycle for Paul Sperry seemed particularly intriguing. I first heard Paul perform live in 1997 in Middlebury, Vermont; since then, I've been captivated by his ability to conjure in an instant a character's spirit, and to shift seamlessly between moods based on the demands of those characters-qualities, among many others, that make him a gifted storyteller. 

In this cycle of ghost stories, I draw mainly from two early 20th century collections (The Haunters & the Haunted, 1921; and True Irish Ghost Stories, 1914) to tell three tales: first, of a young woman's haunting by her former lover returned as an animal ("The Phantom Rat"); second, of two souls crossing at the moment of death and their visitations in each others' homes ("The Queen and the Countess ((Court Records))"); and three, of the ridiculous and unyielding annoyance inflicted upon a family by a soul whose last request was not granted by her dear ones. Snippets of text from the collections' introductory material frame the stories themselves; I imagine these snippets as being sung by one of the spirits depicted returned for the telling of its tale.

The cycle is dedicated to Paul Sperry, whose artistry and commitment to contemporary vocal music continues to dazzle and inspire.


1. Ghostly Phenomena 

"Of all species of ghostly phenomena, hauntings-by ghost, poltergeist, or animal-are most commonly reported." 

2. The Phantom Rat

Many years ago, so the legend runs, a young man was making frantic and unacceptable love to a girl. But he proved unfaithful, and she turned on him crying "I'd sooner marry that rat than you." 

He took her words so much to heart that he pined away and died. 

But soon, by night, the girl was visited by a huge field rat scratching and eating its way through her bedpost, making its way up her nightstand where it jumped on her pillow and gave her a nasty bite, then ran away; and night after night, the rat returned.

And the poor girl called on her sister, who could do nothing. 

And the poor girl called on her mother, who could do nothing.

And the poor girl called on her priest; he could do nothing.

With Holy Water and prayer, balms, and incantations, 

the hauntings continued.

Until, following many painful visitations, she got herself a cat; and after that, so the legend runs, the girl was never haunted again.

3. Apparitions at the Moment of Passing

"That people have seen the image of a friend or relative at the moment of passing has been demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt." 

4. The Queen and the Countess (Court Records)

Queen Ulrica was dead-placed in the usual way in an open coffin, in a room hung with black; lit with candles; a company of the king's guards in the ante-room. 

Dear to the queen, the countess drove up from Stockholm; the guard of honor conducted her from her carriage to the room where the dead queen lay, leaving the countess to grieve.

But at length, the officers feared some accident had befallen her; they opened the door and started back in dismay:

There before them, the dead queen was standing upright in her coffin. As she swayed gently, her gown drifted in the candlelight. She hovered, gliding towards the countess, where she ardently embraced her dear friend. The apparition became enveloped in dense smoke; the vapor rose up above the guards, above the room hung with black, vanishing.

With the vapor vanished the countess, and the queen again lay where she'd been. The guards searched in vain, finding no sign of the countess, her attendants, or her carriage.

The following morning, a message arrived from Stockholm: The countess had never left her home in the capitol; she had died in the queen's arms the night before.

5. Hauntings

"That spirits and apparitions are frequently seen is a well established fact."

6. In County Wicklow

In County Wicklow, a family lost a young daughter to fever. Before she passed, she had asked to be buried, with special blessings, by her grandmother's side-for she'd always been comforted by the old woman's songs, like the one that went: "Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra, Too-ra-loo-ra-lay". 

But for some reason her family did not see fit to do so, and from that hour she gave them no peace:

She appeared to them, dancing wildly and singing: 

"Too-ra-loo-ra, Too-ra-loo-ra-lay". 

By lamplight, by daylight: " Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra, Too-ra-loo-ra-lay". 

At the well, in the garden: " Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra, Too-ra-loo-ra-lay". 

By the fireside, by the bedside: " Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra, Too-ra-loo-ra-lay". 

So distracted were they that at length they got permission to exhume the remains and have them re-interred, with special blessings, by her grandmother's side.