An elegy is a song for the dead, or, in the words of Jean Bethke Elshtain, a “rhapsody for something fading but with the power to touch us still.”1 An elegy talks to the dead in the belief that they can still hear our voices, our grieving. It interacts with them; it feels and hopes for love.
The genre of elegy used to be exclusively female: women’s songs sung over the grave. But over time it gradually transformed into something masculine: a method through which the deceased’s property and power were transferred to a male heir. This gender movement is interesting and upsetting, taking even the power of grief out of the mouths of an entire sex. But this (hopefully) means that the genre can still shape-shift. It has been whatever gender it likes, and it can be both and neither. It is a space of power for any gender, any sexuality, to grieve, to come into the history of mourning and say, “I am here, I am vocal, I am extraordinarily sad.”
With its twisted relationship to gender and to sound, an elegy leads us into a contemplation of queerness and voicelessness. In the wake of the tragic massacre at an LGBT club in Orlando, Florida, there is need for an elegy like this. There is need for a song. We have to give up the dead, but we never have to do it quietly.
“After Orlando” was written in 2016 and premiered by the Exultate Singers at St. George’s Bristol on October 15, 2016. [End Page 141]
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toby young is a composer whose work explores the boundaries between pop and classical music. Since Toby won the Guardian/BBC Proms Young Composer of the Year (2006) and the International ABRSM Composition Competition (2009), his music has been performed by renowned ensembles and orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Academy of Ancient Music, the London Mozart Players, the choirs of King’s College Cambridge and New College Oxford, and the BBC Singers. He has also written and cowritten for numerous pop artists, including the Rolling Stones, Chase & Status, Duran Duran, and Ellie Goulding. Toby is the Gianturco Junior Research Fellow in Music and Philosophy at Linacre College, Oxford.
jennifer thorp is an Australian writer and librettist. Her fiction has been published in the Cambridge Literary Review, Wave Composition, and elsewhere, and her texts for operas, motets, madrigals, lieder, and audioscapes have been performed across the UK and the United States. She was a Clarendon Scholar at the University of Oxford and holds a doctorate in contemporary poetry from the University of Manchester. Her work has won various awards, including the London Short Story award in 2011 and a longlist place in the BBC’s Opening Lines 2014.
1. Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Elegy and Eulogy,” Common Knowledge 14, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 291.