My Name is Belle Starr (2019)
Medium: solo piano
Length: ~25 min
Belle Starr (1848-1889) was a female outlaw and romantic figure of American legend. A crack shot who rode sidesaddle in a black velvet dress, she is a complicated figure, and an example of a woman ahead of her time. One of her accomplishments was the penning of a poem, “My Love is a Rider,” which was set to music and became a well-known folk song. My Name is Belle Starr uses this folk tune in six variations—each an etude.
I. …and they named me Myra Maybelle
As a child, Myra Maybelle Shirley was an active, outgoing girl who was sent to finishing school and studied piano. The first movement presents the folk song in a simple setting at first, and then with increasingly active octave displacement as it progresses. When two lines are present, one is presenting the tune in its original form but augmented, while in the other each beat of the tune is in retrograde.
II. …and my love is a rider
The Shirley family was acquainted with both the James and Younger brothers, exposing an impressionable teen-age Myra to the glamorous outlaws. She was drawn to dangerous men throughout her life. The tune is in its most recognizable form in the second movement. Beginning with the melody simply stated with a single grace note before each pitch, it moves to two graces notes, then to groups of four or more as the tunes become more complex. The melody appears in chords at the extremes of the piano range with a thick interior texture as the piece moves to the climax before returning once again to the initial simple statement.
III. …and I am a widow, and a widow, and a wife
Belle was married three times. Her first two husbands, Jim Reed and Sam Starr—both turning to outlaw life—were killed in gun fights. Her third husband, Jim July Starr, outlived her, and was a possible suspect in her murder. The third movement is a three-voiced fugue although each of the first three entrance of the theme is slightly altered, becoming increasingly dissonant. The folk tune is present only in the episodic material between the entrances of the subject.
IV. …and I am the mother of a Pearl
Belle and Jim Reed had a daughter named Rosie Lee, although Belle always called her Pearl. The movement is a lullaby with the folk song inverted. It is also played entirely on the strings inside the piano.
V. …and they call me the Bandit Queen
Tales of Belle’s exploits were greatly exaggerated in the press, which delighted in selling sensational reports of her adventures, and nick-named her the “Bandit Queen.” In reality, she was the brains behind her husbands’ activities in cow and horse thievery, bootlegging, and stagecoach robbery. She was also their bank—bailing or bribing them out of jail when they were caught. Belle was once jailed for horse theft, but was a model prisoner, and released early. The first and last sections of this movement are an aggressive square dance with a folk waltz in between. (According to some theories about her death, she was killed after scorning a suitor at a dance.) The tune is hidden within the running sixteenth notes of the fast sections, and the middle waltz is the inversion of the tune drawn from the fourth movement.
VI. …and this is my epitaph
Just before her 41st birthday while riding home, Belle Starr was ambushed and shot. Possible suspects included both her son and daughter, her third husband, and a rejected suitor who had a price on his head. Her murder has never been solved. Her tombstone in eastern Oklahoma reads:
Shed not for her the bitter tear,
Nor give the heart to vain regret.
Tis but the casket that lies here,
The gem that filled it sparkles yet.
This movement is a chorale, interrupted by quotes from the first movement. The chorale tune is an original melody by the composer and, paired with the folk tune, moves throughout each of the four voices at one time or another. The pianist may sing or speak the epitaph in the opening of the piece.