NAME: Robert Chesley

March 22, 1943, Jersey City, New Jersey

December 5, 1990, San Francisco, California

Photo: Gene Webber, courtesy estate of Robert Chesley.

Click on the photo to hear audio samples of Robert Chesley

  • identification & bio
  • works
  • writings
  • uncompleted works
  • discography
  • bibliography
  • affiliations
  • resources
  • executor
  • archives
  • other
  • back to index of composers

    Playwright, Composer, Author, Activist

    B.A. in Music, Reed College, Portland, Oregon

    Robert Chesley is best remembered as a playwright, though he was also an author, critic and composer. He was born in Jersey City, New Jersey and taught in private schools in upstate New York for nearly ten years before settling in New York City in 1976. He relocated to San Francisco in the early 1980s where he became a part of the gay theater scene.

    Chesley composed during the ten-year period 1965 to 1975 and his compositions were almost exclusively for voice. Between 1966 and 1970 he composed 53 songs, mostly to texts by American poets including Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather and James Agee, and including sixteen settings of the British poet Walter de la Mare. There are also several choral works from the 1970s, with texts by Gertrude Stein and Walt Whitman among others. His few instrumental works include the score to a 1972 film by Erich Kollmar, the Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord (1974), and the Little Concerto for Two Flutes and String Orchestra (1968), which was revived in 1991 in a Benson Series concert of Downtown Music Productions, conducted by Mimi Stern-Wolfe.

    The transformation of Robert Chesley, composer to Robert Chesley, playwright roughly coincided with his move to San Francisco. In 1984 the city’s Theatre Rhinoceros produced his first one-act, Hell, I Love You and in 1984 Chesley’s Night Sweat became the first produced full-length play to deal with AIDS. In all, Chesley wrote ten full-length and twenty-one one-act plays. Several works were premiered posthumously and all of his major plays have been published.

    Robert Chesley died of AIDS in San Francisco at the age of 47 on December 5, 1990.



    Songs for Treble Voice and Piano

    All But Blind (1966) Walter de la Mare

    Autumn (1966) Walter de la Mare

    By the Willow (1966) Arthur Waley (translated from the Chinese)

    Four Animal Songs (1968)
    duration: 6:00
        Far Away (Elizabeth Coatsworth)
        The Frogs' Wedding (Elizabeth Coatsworth)
        Four Little Foxes (Lew Sarett)
        Poor Old Horse (anon)

    Four Songs (1967) Walter de la Mare
        The Solitary Bird
        Not One
        The Sleeping Child
        Earth Folk

    Four Winter Songs (1969) Walter de la Mare
        Winter Company
        A Snowdrop

    The Happy Child (1966) William Henry Davies

    Here I Sit Like a Princess (1966) Grace Fallow Norton

    The Huntsmen (1966) Walter de la Mare

    I went to thank her (1966) Emily Dickinson

    In the Valley of the Elwy (1966) Gerard Manley Hopkins

    The last night that she lived (1966) Emily Dickinson

    Lovers How They Come and Part (1966) Robert Herrick

    New feet within my garden go (1966) Emily Dickinson

    Nobody knows this little rose (1966) Emily Dickinson

    The Old Stone House (1966) Walter de la Mare

    Peace (1966) Gerard Manley Hopkins

    September. 1918 (1966) Amy Lowell

    Six Imagist Songs (1965)
    for: soprano and piano (or soprano and orchestra)
    duration: 10:00
        Pear Tree (H.D.)
        Oread (H.D.)
        The Pond (Amy Lowell)
        The Warning (Adelaide Crapsey)
        Wind and Silver (Amy Lowell)
        Night Clouds (Amy Lowell)
    premiere: Reed College, Portland, OR 1965

    A soft sea washed around the house (1966) Emily Dickinson

    Spring and Fall (1966) Gerard Manley Hopkins

    Still Own Thee (1966) Emily Dickinson

    Summer, 1967 (1967)
        Evening Song (Willa Cather)
        In Media Vita (Willa Cather)
        Lullaby (Palmer Brown)

    Summer, 1970 (1970)
        The Flood (William Henry Davies)
        Sleep, angry beauty, sleep (Thomas Campion)
        Children at Play (William Henry Davies)
        In Deep Sleep (Walter de la Mare)
        Things (Walter de la Mare)

    Theme and Variations (1969) James Agee
    duration: 15:00

    Three Poems of Thomas Hardy (1969)
    duration: 5:00
        During Wind and Rain
        Lying Awake
        Proud Songsters
    premiere: Kristin Norderval, soprano, Susan McCarthy, piano, Society of Gay and Lesbian Composers concert, San Francisco, CA, March 1986

    To Daffodils (1966) Robert Herrick

    To Meddowes [sic] (1966) Robert Herrick

    Two Songs (1968) Walter de la Mare
        The Snowdrop
        Five of Us

    Who occupies this house? (1966) Emily Dickinson

    Songs for Voice and Instruments

    Incidental music to The Land of Heart's Desires (1969) William B. Yeats
    for: child soprano, optional alto, toy organ, recorder, two guitars
    duration: 3:00
    premiere: Dutchess School, Millbrook, NY 1969

    Night Quintet (1966) Emily Bronte
    for: alto and string quartet
    duration: 4:00
        Oh evening, why is thy light so sad?
        I know not how it falls on me
        'Tis moonlight, summer moonlight

    Six Imagist Songs (1965)
    for: soprano and orchestra (or soprano and piano)
    duration: 10:00
        Pear Tree (H.D.)
        Oread (H.D.)
        The Pond (Amy Lowell)
        The Warning (Adelaide Crapsey)
        Wind and Silver (Amy Lowell)
        Night Clouds (Amy Lowell)

    Three Bagatelles (1965) Gerard Manley Hopkins
    for: soprano, flute, violin, viola, cello
    duration: 8:00
        Spring and Fall
        In the Valley of the Elwy
    note: each song also for voice and piano, listed above

    Three Lullabies (1967) Walter de la Mare
    for: soprano and orchestra
    duration: 10:00
        Not One
        Earth Folk
        The Sleeping Child
    note: each song also for voice and piano, listed above under Four Songs

    Songs for Multiple Voices/Chorus

    Anthem: Come, Lovely and Soothing Death (1976) Walt Whitman
    for: SSAATTBB chorus
    duration: 6:00

    Deathsongs (1976) Miriam Dyak
    for: SA chorus or solo voices
    duration: 5:00
        You seem so alive now
        You circle your bed like a dog
        Last night I dreamed we put you in the toy box
        I saw your coffin today

    Forgiveness (1968) Walter de la Mare
    for: SATB
    duration: 3:00

    In the Beginning (1975?) Gospel of John (King James Version)
    for: SATB
    duration: 10:00

    Ladies' Voices (1973) Gertrude Stein
    for: 2 soprano soloists and SA chorus
    duration: 8:00
    premiere: Bennett College, Millbrook, NY 1974 (?)

    Mildred's Thoughts (1975) Gertrude Stein
    for: soprano and alto soloists, SA chorus, viola, organ
    duration: 12:00
    premiere: Bennett College, Millbrook, NY 1976

    The Spectacle (1967) Walter de la Mare
    for: SATB
    duration: 10:00

    To E.T.: 1917 (1967) Walter de la Mare
    for: SATB
    premiere: Vassar College Choir on tour, 1975

    Two Madrigals (1966) Walter de la Mare
    for: SATB
    duration: 8:00
    All That's Past
    premiere: Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco, inaugural concert of culture week for Gay Games II, August 1986

    Instrumental Works

    Fugue on a Brazilian Folk Tune (1972) Film music for Erich Kollmar
    for: harpsichord
    duration: 3:00

    Little Concerto (1968)
    for: 2 flutes and string orchestra
    duration: 10:00

    Sonata: Mr. Yorick in Italy (1974)
    for: guitar and harpsichord
    duration: 10:00
    premiere: Bennett College, Millbrook, NY 1975


    Beatitudes (1984)
    Come Again: An Entertainment During The Siege (1987)
    Dog Plays (1989)
    Wild (Person, Tense) Dog
    The Deploration of Rover
    Fuck The Holidays: One Act Plays (1979-82)
    Happy V.D.
    April First
    Arbor Day
    Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts
    The Scream
    A Christmas Card
    Hell, I Love You and Breaking Up: Fragments (1981)
    Jerker, Or The Helping Hand (1985)
    Video adaptation (TLA Video Management Inc., 1991)
    Madeleine de Lucien (1985)
    Miscellaneous One Act Plays (1981-1984)
    A Dog's Life
    Maggie's Play
    Somebody's Little Boy
    The Lost Doll
    Laughter and Tears
    Et Tu, Lesbo
    (Untitled), a libretto
    Nocturnes (1983)
    Night Sweat (1983)
    Pigman: A Comedy in Three Acts (1985-6)
    Private Theatricals: Morning, Noon & Night (1990)
    Stray Dog Story : An Adventure In Ten Scenes (1981)
    Published with illustrations by Kimble Mead, and an introduction by Nicholas Deutsch (JH Press: ISBN 0935672117).
    Hard Plays/Stiff Parts: The Homoerotic Plays of Robert Chesley (Night Sweat – Jerker – Dog Plays) includes notes on the plays by the author, with illustrations by Art Jagonosi and an introduction by Bert Herrman. (Alamo Square Press, 1990: ISBN 0962475114).

    For the Kids
    Gentle Annie

    Articles for Gay Community News, Gayweek, The Advocate and Omega (1976-1978).


    "Nobody knows this little rose" and "Autumn," Marshall Coid, countertenor, Mimi Stern-Wolfe, piano, Sudden Sunsets: Highlights from the Benson Series, Downtown Music Productions, Leonarda Records LE 354 (forthcoming).


    • "AIDS in the Arts," by Ben Fong-Torres, San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, March 28, 1993 (includes short profile of Chesley).



    source for all musical works:
    Nicholas Deutsch
    72 Park Terrace West
    New York, NY 10034
    (212) 569-0407

    Reed College Library
    S.E. Woodstock Boulevard
    Portland, OR 97202

    Includes all musical scores, unpublished plays and journalism (1976-78).

    San Francisco Public Library has most scores.

    The Robert Chesley Award for Lesbian and Gay Playwriting is given annually by Publishing Triangle


    index of composers »