Peter Willsher

Helen Keller Symphony

InstrumentationFl(2), Ob(2), B flat Cl(2), Bn(2), Hn(4), B flat Tpt(3), Tbns(3), Tb, Timp, Perc (triangle, cymbals), strings, Piano (2d movement)
Length30 minutes.
DifficultyModerate Difficulty.
CommentsIn three movements, melodic, with recurring themes, audience friendly. Tonal music in the key of F. Scored for full orchestra. Suitable for performance in any program with a theme related to Helen Keller. Could be used in concerts with a fundraising theme related to the handicapped, and would appeal to potential corporate sponsors. A good example of program music for use as an educational resource by youth orchestras and high school orchestras. Will also appeal to professional and community orchestras, and their audiences. Of interest to theatrical producers for presentations of the play "The Miracle Worker".
SourcesSend enquires about score and parts to Willsher Music Warehouse, 1916 Leclair Crescent, Orleans, ON, CANADA, K1E 3S7. Tel.: (613) 837-2853. e-mail: Web page:
HistoryHas been performed 3 times. This work started its life as incidental music to The Miracle Worker, a play based on the early part of Helen Keller's life. Several years ago, a group of incredibly enthusiastic and gifted actors in Cornwall, under their dynamic director Mike Togneri, encouraged me to write music for them, which I had the greatest pleasure in doing. After the performances the music lay idle until one of the members of the Parkdale Orchestra heard part of it, and suggested that I orchestrate it fully for the orchestra to play. The first performance was given by the Parkdale Orchestra in Ottawa, on November 15, 1998.
ContributorPeter Willsher - email: Conductor, composer, workshop clinician and teacher, Music Director of the Parkdale United Church Orchestra (Ottawa), and the Cantabile Chorale (formerly the Knight Singers) and Orchestra (Montreal).
OtherThe symphony is in three movements:
1. Silence and Darkness
2. Touch
3. Water

This is a programme symphony, which means that it tells a story in musical terms. Each main character has a theme: Helen's mother, for example is presented very lyrically, followed by Helen's father, the "General". These are the two main subjects of the first movement, whose purpose is to introduce the characters. It is the first year in Helen's life, when she lost the senses of sound and sight. The screams of her mother can be heard when she discovers that her beautiful daughter is blind and deaf.

For the second movement, several years have passed. Helen is now lively, naughty, and incredibly spoiled, so much so that she is no longer manageable. Help arrives in the form of Annie Sullivan, who has an emotive theme, counterpointed with that of Helen (they both appear early in this movement). After several fights, which may also be heard, the two of them spend some time alone, with Annie teaching Helen to spell by touch. Unfortunately, Helen thinks this is just a game and does not make the association between the spelled word and the related object.

After their time together, the two return home. Any resulting improvement in Helen's behaviour is lost, until Annie makes Helen fill up the water jug from the pump. It is then she makes her first association, and actually says the word "Wah-wah," which she had spoken as an infant! This is marked in the music by a huge climax. The "Water" theme (which has its roots in the "Ideal" theme from Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration) is heard. Following this she goes around touching everything in reach, then spelling them. She also spells "I love you" to Annie, and their themes become inseparable.

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