THE SPACE BETWEEN, a Song Cycle on the Poetry of Wendell Berry

By Carman, Judith | Journal of Singing, March/April 2009 | Go to article overview

THE SPACE BETWEEN, a Song Cycle on the Poetry of Wendell Berry


Carman, Judith, Journal of Singing


GENDEL, SCOTT (b. 1977). THE SPACE BETWEEN, a Song Cycle on the Poetry of Wendell Berry. High voice and piano. E. C. Schirmer Music Company (ECS), 2008. Tonal; C^sub 4^-A^sub 5^; Tess: CR & mL-mH; changing meters, a variety of tempos; V/-D, P/M-D; 20 minutes. High voice.

Scott Gendel (pronounced with a hard "g" and the accent on the second syllable) currently lives in Madison, WI, where he is a freelance composer/arranger and a pianist/conductor who works with solo singers, choirs, and theater productions. His academic training is in composition, opera accompanying, and vocal coaching, and he puts all these skills to good use in his vocal compositions. First Prize Winner in the ASCAP/Lotte Lehmann Foundation Song Cycle Competition in 2005, the composer was commissioned by the Foundation to write a song cycle. The result is this set of songs on the poetry of Wendell Berry, whose poems have attracted other song composers because of the beauty of their imagery and the depth of their meaning.

The composer states in "Program Notes by the Composer" printed on the back of the score that he wished to make this work a declaration of "both my personal philosophy and my musical passions." To that end he chose six poems (one is repeated) that speak of "the most large-scale and elevated of subjects: the meaning of love, the fate of the world, and the future of humanity," but that approach these subjects "with the simplest and lightest of touches." Berry is well known for his use of images in nature all around us to convey the atmosphere and meaning of his poems.

This juxtaposition of large subjects and small details is reflected in the musical settings, which contain both large dramatic gestures and small simple details that adorn them. The composer admits that the poems he chose are "in some ways grandiose," and on more than one occasion, the music comes perilously close to being overblown. On balance, however, this is a truly beautiful work.

There are many cyclic elements in the music throughout the work-recurring motifs, accompaniment patterns, and large musical themes-that tie the piece together. In addition, one poem is repeated (2. "Whatever Happens" and 6. "We Will Not Leave" are the same poem) in a position that turns the cycle toward its conclusion. In the last poem we find the source of the cycle tide: "We come at last to the dark and enter in . . . We come to me space between ourselves, the narrow doorway, and pass through into the land of the wholly loved."

The cycle opens with a repeated B^sub 5^ in the right hand over a descending B^sub 2^, B[musical flat]^sub 2^, A^sub 2^, A[musical flat]^sub 2^, C^sub 2^, B^sub 2^, both single lines in a slow syncopated pattern that suggests the wakefulness of the poet whose despair for the world leads him to "go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds." The going out into "the peace of wild things" introduces a rather long musical theme in the left hand middle register of the piano under a triplet broken chord pattern high in the treble register. Within this texture, the voice paints the text in lyric lines. As the poet rests in "the grace of the world," the music returns to the beginning syncopated pattern that brackets calm chords in the middle voices.

The second song, "Whatever Happens," continues the syncopated pattern in chords, with the addition of two small sixteenth note triplet figures. The vocal line introduces a new somewhat melismatic melodic theme that cycles through several tonal areas and will be heard again later in the cycle.

The third song, "A Song of Thanks," marked "Allegro, wild, with abandon," is the most nearly grandiose song of the cycle and comes close to being over the top. …

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