Catching Up with Jake Heggie

We recently caught up with composer and friend of the SF Girls Chorus, Jake Heggie. At SFGC’s 2016 annual gala fundraiser, members of the Chorus will perform Heggie’s I Shall Not Live in Vain with guest soloist Frederica von Stade (known to her friends and fans as “Flicka”).

SFGC: What inspired you to use Emily Dickinson’s poetry for I Shall Not Live in Vain?

JH: Dickinson poetry astounds me. In just a few lines, she can make a vast and deeply human statement that resonates authentically and powerfully through time. She still seems, to me, to be on of the most current and contemporary of poets. I've set many of her poems over the years. I had loved "I shall not live in vain" for ages - I felt music, but it didn't sing to me until one day in the Fall of 1995, when I heard Renee Fleming in a rehearsal at San Francisco Opera. I ran home and wrote the song in an hour and gave it to her as a gift. A couple years later, Flicka asked if I'd arrange it to include a girls chorus and handbells for a celebration at Sacred Heart in Connecticut. I was happy to do it and explore yet another dimension to the poem by adding Salve Regina in honor of Sacred Heart.

SFGC: How is writing for young voices different than writing for adult voices?

JH: The range isn't much different, but the color is so bright, pure and radiant. I love it dearly. My first time writing for girls' voices was a piece called Patterns that I wrote for SF Girls Chorus in 1998, with "Flicka" von Stade as soloist. I featured young voices in my opera Dead Man Walking, too.

SFGC: At what age did you start composing, and has your compositional style changed over the years?

JH: I started writing when I was 11 years old, just after my father died. I found enormous strength, empowerment and joy in composition - I felt at home and identified. My original works were very much influenced by Broadway and Beethoven, because that's what I knew growing up. Since then, I've tried to push myself into different realms harmonically, rhythmically and stylistically - always in service of a story or drama. But, those original influences are still very much a part of who I am as a composer.

SFGC: What advice do you have for young women looking to have a career in composition?

JH: Force yourself to write many different kinds of music and styles, but always about things that are meaningful to you and that you connect with deeply. Be prolific. This is how we grow as composers: write something, listen to it performed, learn from it, and move on to something else. Listen to the friendly ears around you who believe in you, but who will tell you the truth of what they hear or are missing in your work. Be a good colleague - make friends with performers - go to concerts - make yourself known - seek out opportunities or create them. And above all, be educated - listen to everything, study scores, read, learn, explore, keep your ears and eyes open to the world around you.

SFGC: Who was/is your biggest inspiration?

JH: My biggest inspiration is love. I've been blessed with many great friends and mentors along the way - people who believed in me and loved me. People who saw more possibility in me than I could have imagined - and encouraged me to grow and explore. People who gave me amazing opportunities.

SFGC: What is your favorite piece of music that you’ve composed, and why? 

JH: I get asked this a lot - and I have yet to be able to identify just a single piece of music of mine that I prefer above the others. My compositions are my children - and I don't really play favorites. Each has taught me something valuable - and each represents a part of my heart and my life.

The piece of music I most admire is Bach's St. Matthew Passion. I think it's one of the greatest pieces ever created.

For more information about Jake Heggie and his work, visit