The Niles-Merton Songs, Opp. 171 & 172


CHAD RUNYON, baritone



"...a clear, accurate, and musically satisfying CD...I invite you to experience Merton's poetry in a new dimension by listening to this well-crafted and splendidly interpreted recording...Although written originally for soprano and piano, this rendition, adjusted for baritone voice, is both pleasing to the ear and gracefully situated in the male vocal range. Indeed, this recording is not just technically proficient; it is intelligently musical, doing justice to the creative vision of both Niles and Merton."
The Merton Seasonal - A Quarterly Review - Fall 2006
"The performances are fine...Chew's accompaniment is excellent."
American Record Guide -  November/December 2006
"To all of these songs, Niles applied subtle touches...Chad Runyon...shapes each song as if it were a miniature tale being freshly recounted...Runyon's attention to the melding of words and music is sure. He teams seemlessly with pianist Jacqueline Chew, who points out nuances in Niles' writing with fine control and vibrancy."
Gramophone - Awards Issue 2006
"Runyon sings well and Jacqueline Chew’s piano work is exemplary. This is an interesting CD... Its unpretentious music communicates the composer’s obvious love of the texts he sets and a similar affection is evident in its performance."
MusicWeb International - October 2006
"These songs demand drama and understanding to interpret.  You both have succeeded remarkably [in this] very nuanced and lovely reading of the  music."
Ron Pen, July 31, 2006
John Jacob Niles Center for American Music, Director University of Kentucky
"You [bring] so much love to the music.  You have a wonderful feeling for the work.  [An] outstanding CD of the Niles Merton Songs."
Jacqueline Roberts, soprano for whom the songs were written
Lexington, KY.  July 2006
"Here at last is a recording that does justice to the real artistry and
sophistication of the Niles Merton Song Cycle"
Brother Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O. Novice under Thomas Merton.
Chad Runyon, baritone, has appeared on television, radio and concert programs worldwide. For nearly a decade, he was a member of the Grammy award-winning ensemble, Chanticleer. He has appeared with American Bach Soloists, Apollo’s Fire, the Meredith Monk Singers, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony. Roles include Mendelssohn’s Elijah; Christ (St. Matthew Passion); Bass Arias (St. John Passion); Bass Arias (Messiah); Traveler, Curlew River (opera Benjamin Britten). Recordings include: Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, PBS, Emmy Award; The Gift of the Magi (opera by David Conte), Arsis; Mexican Baroque, Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe, I Have Had Singing and Sing We Christmas, Teldec Classics; Our Heart’s Joy and With a Poet’s Eye, Chanticleer Records. He holds degrees from Wheaton Conservatory (BM), and Southern Methodist University (MM). For more information, visit:

Jacqueline Chew, pianist, is known for her performances of the music of Olivier Messiaen. In 1986, at conductor Kent Nagano’s invitation, she went to Europe to meet Messiaen and coach with Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen in preparation for his two-hour piano cycle, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus). In 1988, she gave her first complete performance of this work. From 1990 -2004, Jacqueline Chew performed, toured and recorded with the Women’s Philharmonic. She currently teaches at the University of California – Berkeley, San Francisco Conservatory, and San Francisco Community Music Center. In 2005, she became a Benedictine Camaldolese Oblate.

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In the late summer of 1967, two eminent Kentucky residents met for the first time. Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968), a Trappist monk and author, had traveled around the world to settle in the monastery at Trappist, Kentucky. John Jacob Niles (1892 -1980), a folk singer and composer, had never drifted far from his Kentucky roots. The journey to their meeting found its genesis in the language of existentialist poetry and Zen Buddhism. The two would only meet a few times before Merton’s untimely death in Thailand on December 10, 1968. But this occasion was enough to launch Niles on a four-year journey to set twenty-two poems of Thomas Merton to music.

Both Opus 171 and 172 are unique because, as song cycles, they do not share common harmonic or melodic themes. Rather, it is Merton’s poetry that binds each cycle together. Opus 171 reflects both the poet and composer’s fascination with nature, changes in season and day closing to night. Images of wheat fields making "simple music," the moon speaking "clearly to the hill" and "secret vegetal words" permeate the first ten songs. Niles sought to capture these images with music. For example, in "The Messenger" Niles uses a descending melody of triplets to suggest an image of sunlight spilling forth as the singer announces the "coming of the warrior sun." In "Evening" he uses a repeated three-note melody throughout the piece to evoke the call of the whippoorwill.

Niles was devastated by Merton’s death. Undoubtedly his grief influenced the poems he selected for Opus 172. While Opus 171 emphasizes nature, the remaining twelve songs center upon grief, violence and human misery. "For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, 1943" is Thomas Merton’s most famous poem and Niles perfectly captures the overwhelming anguish Merton felt at the loss of his only brother. He uses a falling melodic line at the beginning of the piece that suggests a sense of despair. Then, as the poet entreats his brother to "Come, in my labor find a resting place" Niles changes the key from minor to major and marks the passage "with great tenderness." A funeral march closes the piece as the pianist plays alternate fifths and octaves to create the effect of marching feet. "The Ohio River-Louisville" is another example of using music to highlight the text. Merton portrays a "tremendous silence" of the river that drowns out all industry and commerce. The only sound that is heard is the "thin salt voice of violence." Niles employs a technique he learned from Charles Ives. The pianist is instructed to play a "cluster chord" only on the black notes using a felt-covered board 10 7/8" long. The clashing sound of the chord invokes the noise of the city. He contrasts this clashing sound with a sparse accompaniment to reflect the slow-moving river.


OPUS 171
The Messenger
The Nativity
The Responsory, 1948
When You Point Your Finger
The Weathercock on the Cathedral of Quito
Great Prayer
Love Winter
When the Plant Says Nothing
Lament of a Maiden for the Warrior’s Death

OPUS 172
O Sweet Irrational Worship
The Mirror’s Mission
For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, 1943
The Greek Women
The Ohio River – Louisville
Original Sin (A Memorial Anthem for Father’s Day)
Birdcage Walk
Jesus Weeps into the Fire
Mosaic: St. Praxed’s

MSR Classics