Libby Larsen (b. 1950) is an accomplished American composer. With over 500 compositions, several orchestral and university residencies, and numerous accolades to her name, Larsen’s professional career is a tour de force. Born in Delaware, Larsen moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, at an early age. Her early musical education at Christ the King School in Minneapolis centered on singing and reading Gregorian chant, which, according to soprano Tina Milhorn Stallard, opened Larsen’s eyes and ears to “rhythmic flexibility and prosody.” The rhythmic elasticity inherent in Gregorian chant “offered to [Larsen] the idea that there was freedom in music, an idea which would permeate her future compositions.” This freedom may be observed in works where Larsen uses phrase markings, as opposed to a rigid meter, to group musical ideas or gestures. When she does use bar lines, she adds them late in her compositional process, allowing her melodic ideas to guide the time signatures.
Larsen received her BA, MM, and PhD from the University of Minnesota. While a student at the university, she noticed contemporary composers having difficulty programming their works. As a result of her observations and experiences, she, along with Stephen Paulus, organized the American Composers Forum in Minneapolis in 1973. Today the Forum champions the music of American composers and works diligently to “make composers, and the music they create, a vibrant and integral part of our culture.” Its awards, grants, and publications have helped many composers make professional inroads in a highly competitive field.
Many of Larsen’s works champion women, which is particularly noteworthy as Illuminate begins its new series. Larsen’s opera Barnum’s Bird relates the story of soprano Jenny Lind’s American tour from 1850-1851. Her operas Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus, A Wrinkle in Time, and Mrs. Dalloway are all based on stories by women authors, and the latter two feature female protagonists. Several song collections, such as The Birth Project and Love after 1950, showcase poetry by women. Mary Cassatt and Songs from Letters set letters from Mary Cassatt and Calamity Jane, respectively.
One could choose a number of pieces from Larsen’s oeuvre to examine, but the following notes focus on Sarabande: In Profane Style (1997), which will be performed during Illuminate’s inaugural concert series. Larsen wrote and dedicated Sarabande to John Holmquist, a renowned guitarist associated with the Cleveland Institute of Music. Alejandro Saladin Cote recorded Sarabande in 2012 on the album Silhouettes: New American Music for Guitar. Both the score and Cote’s recording are accessible through Larsen’s personal website at
The Sarabande, Historically Speaking
When thinking of a sarabande, one might recall dance suites. Though this is a significant genre distinction for French and German sarabandes, the sarabande has a long and colorful history in Spain and Italy. According to Grove Music Online, the sarabande had its origins in Latin America and Spain, but traveled to Italy in the seventeenth century as part of the Spanish guitar repertory. In Spain, the zarabanda was an energetic dance with sung text that was accompanied by guitar, castanets, and other percussion; however, it was banned in 1583 for its obscenity. Larsen’s subtitle for her Sarabande, “In Profane Style,” creates a dialogue with this historical fact. As we will see, Larsen’s Sarabande defies some conventions of the genre, thus “profaning” the style.
Other historical elements to note include the sarabande’s formal structure, meter, rhythm, and instrumentation. In the seventeenth century, the French version of the sarabande was sectional. Larsen’s Sarabande could certainly be interpreted as sectional, with returning chords and motives lending a sense of unity to the work. In the 1630s, triple meter became a defining feature of the sarabande, and by the seventeenth century, there was often rhythmical emphasis on beat two. Although we rarely hear a clear triple meter in Larsen’s Sarabande, there is often emphasis on the second beat of the measure.
After 1640, the sarabande was closely associated with the guitar in Spain and Italy. Larsen draws on this connection by writing her Sarabande for solo guitar. In France and Germany, however, the sarabande often appeared in keyboard and lute suites as a slower dance in triple meter. Larsen does evoke this slower tempo at the beginning of her Sarabande, but ultimately transitions into a quicker tempo.
Larsen’s “Profane” Sarabande
Larsen’s Sarabande both ascribes to and avoids the genre of the sarabande. Rhythmically, for instance, Larsen puts emphasis on the second beat while eschewing the sarabande’s distinctive triple meter. She also incorporates both slower and faster tempi. Larsen’s Sarabande begins “slowly, sensuously,” almost like the guitarist is seducing or daring the listener to join in the upcoming dance. As the tempo increases and the dance commences, Larsen begins emphasizing the second beat in different ways. Sometimes beat two has a downward leap and the lowest pitches. Other times it has the longest note value of the measure. Yet Larsen “profanes” the sarabande style by avoiding the traditional meter of 3/4. In fact, she changes meters throughout, appearing to undermine metrical stability almost as soon as she establishes it.
Larsen evokes the Spanish roots of the sarabande by using techniques often associated with Flamenco music. First, she indicates for the guitarist to play golpe three times during the work. Golpe, a Spanish noun that indicates a “hit” or “knock,” involves rhythmically striking the wood or bridge of the guitar. Second, Larsen often indicates tambura. This is a softer percussive sound; the guitarist strikes the strings, as opposed to the wood or bridge of the guitar. Finally, near the end of her Sarabande, Larsen calls for rasgueado, a rapid strumming technique. In the video below we have our very own Illuminate guitarist Cassie Mathews demonstrating these techniques:
Like the early French sarabande, however, Larsen’s Sarabande is sectional. A slow introduction precedes the fast dance, which Larsen marks allegro. Within the dance, linear melodic sections alternate with strummed, chordal sections. Tempo fluctuations, such as ritardandos and a long accelerando, also help mark musical divisions. Yet despite such changes, Larsen creates a sense of unity through repeated motivic ideas, intervals, and chords. For example, many of the strummed chords are built on the interval of a fourth. In the dance portion, a neighboring figure, which is quickly connected to a dotted gesture, repeats several times. The golpe technique also ties the slow and fast sections together. But perhaps most significant is Larsen’s repeated use of a tritone, both melodically and harmonically. Known as the diabolus in musica (the devil’s interval), in part due to its harmonic instability, Larsen could not have chosen a better melodic or harmonic idea to profane her Sarabande!
Two other features to note in Sarabande include moments of indeterminacy and Larsen’s descriptive instructions. At three points in the work, Larsen instructs the guitarist to repeat notes or percussive effects “as long as you wish.” Two of these moments occur near the end of the slow section; one occurs at the end of the work. These places are notable because in giving such instructions, Larsen is giving the performer a degree of autonomy. The performer must use his or her musical judgment to determine how long to extend the repetitions.
Larsen also fills her work with descriptive instructions, guiding the performer in his or her interpretation. For instance, at the beginning of the work, Larsen instructs the guitarist to play “slowly, sensuously as if beckoning with subtle, deeply warm movements.” A sense of intensity near the end of Sarabande is also clear. On the final pages of the work, the guitarist is instructed to play in a manner that is “about to break loose” and then “suddenly forcefully restrained.” This restraint does not last, though, as Larsen describes the music-or perhaps the guitarist-as “no longer able to hold back, faster and more frenzied to the end.” It is as if Larsen places the performer on the cusp of losing his or her musical mind, risking a breach of behavior that could potentially profane expected performance decorum.
In sum, Larsen creates a modern sarabande that, at times, almost flaunts its musical transgressions. Her Sarabande clearly draws on elements of past sarabandes, but it also moves in new and unexpected directions. It engages with, but is not bound by the past, encouraging us to think about what has been, what is, and what might be.
© Laura Dallman, 2018
Endnotes and references in the text identify my sources. The literature on Larsen is abundant, so the additional resources are just some of many possible suggestions! -LD
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Music Online. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/
grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002250015?rskey=7h7aCP&result=1 (accessed 1 January 2018).
Glahn, Denise von. Libby Larsen: Composing an American Life. Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 2017.
Hudson, Richard, and Meredith Ellis Little. “Sarabande.” Grove Music Online.
http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000024574 (accessed 1 January 2018).
Kachian, Christopher. Composer’s Desk Reference for the Classical Guitar. Pacific, MO:
Mel Bay Publications, 2006.
Larsen, Libby. Composer’s personal website. https://libbylarsen.com/ (accessed 1
———. “Composing, Words, Music.” In Teaching Music through Performance in Choir,
ed. Heather J. Buchanan and Matthew W. Mehaffey, 95-110. Vol. 2. Chicago: GIA Publications, 2005.
“Libby Larsen: Communicating Through Music.” Interview by Richard Kessler.
NewMusicBox. 1 February 1999. https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/libby-larsen-communicating-through-music/ (accessed 7 January 2018).
Raines, Robert. “Libby Larsen.” In Composition in the Digital World: Conversations
with 21st Century American Composers, 90-101. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Stallard, Tina Milhorn. “Libby Larsen (1950-).” In Women of Influence in Contemporary
Music: Nine American Composers, ed. Michael K. Slayton, 148-91. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011.
Strand, Katherine. “A Socratic Dialogue with Libby Larsen: On Music, Musical
Experience in American Culture, and Music Education.” Philosophy of Music Education Review 19 (Spring 2011): 52-66.
 Tina Milhorn Stallard, “Libby Larsen (1950-),” in Women of Influence in Contemporary
Music: Nine American Composers, ed. Michael K. Slayton (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011), 148.
 “About,” American Composer’s Forum, 2018, https://composersforum.org/about/about-acf/ (accessed 1 January 2018).
 For a general discussion of the sarabande see Grove Music Online, s.v. “Sarabande.”
 This may also be tied directly to Larsen’s compositional process of inserting bar lines later in the compositional process. See Stallard, 152.
 For a quick discussion of guitar techniques, see Christopher Kachian, Composer’s Desk Reference for the Classical Guitar (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, 2006). There are also a number of easily accessible YouTube videos that demonstrate Flamenco techniques.
 See Libby Larsen Sarabande: In Profane Style (Minneapolis: Libby Larsen Publishing, 1997), 1. The indication is above the first measure.
 Ibid., 4. The first indication is above the first treble stave. The second indication is above the second treble stave.
 Ibid. The indication is above the fourth treble stave.