Academic journal article Chicago Review

Selected Program Notes

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Selected Program Notes

Article excerpt

A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1 975)

When I agreed to write a cycle of songs for Speculum Musicae I decided, first, that it should be for soprano and chamber orchestra. The poems of Elizabeth Bishop impressed me because they have a clear verbal coherence as well as an imaginative use of syllabic sounds that suggest the singing voice. I was very much in sympathy with their point of view, for there is almost always a secondary layer of meaning, sometimes ironic, sometimes passionate, that gives a special ambiance, often contradictory, to what the words say. The order of the songs is entirely mine, alternating as they do between considerations about nature, love, and isolation.

A Mirror on Which to Dwell, a line from the poem, "Insomnia," is the title I chose partly because it seemed to characterize the general world of the poems, partly because I wanted the music to be a mirror of the words, and partly because of Speculum Musicae, the organization that commissioned the work in honor of the US Bicentennial. Its first performance was by Susan Davenny Wyner and Speculum Musicae, Richard Fitz conducting, in New York City on February 24,1976. The work is dedicated to the artists that gave its first performance.

A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1 976)

A Symphony of Three Orchestras, begun in June 1976 and completed in December, was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic under a grant to six orchestras (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia) from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, in celebration of the United States Bicentennial. The score is dedicated to the New York Philharmonic and Pierre Boulez, then its music director.

For this work the whole orchestra is divided into three smaller orchestras, as in the multiple-orchestra works of Mozart. Orchestra I is made up of brass, strings, and timpani; Orchestra II, clarinets, piano, vibraphone, chimes, marimba, solo violins and basses, and a group of cellos; Orchestra III, flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, violins, violas, basses, and nonpitched percussion.

The opening music starts in the highest registers of the three orchestras and slowly descends as the trumpet announces one of the themes heard at various times in Orchestra I; it ends in a series of rapidly plunging passages. The music was suggested by the beginning of Hart Crane's The Bridge, which describes New York harbor and the Brooklyn Bridge:

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest

The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him,

Shedding white rings of tumult, building high

Over the chained bay waters Liberty-

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes

As apparitional as sails that cross

Some page of figures to be filed away;

-Till elevators drop us from our day....

The opening descent immediately leads to a giocoso theme played by bassoons, the central idea of the first movement of Orchestra III that begins the main section of the score. From here to the coda, twelve differently characterized movements are heard, each with its own related themes, four played by each orchestra. The four movements of each orchestra, while differing in expression and speed, are related, of course, not only by spatial location and instrumental color but also by characteristic harmonies and rhythms. While no orchestra plays two of its movements at a time, each of the twelve is introduced while another movement of another orchestra is being played, briefly surfaces to be heard alone, and then becomes the background for another entrance of another movement. Thus there is a continual overlapping and changing flow of music. The listener, of course, is not meant, on first hearing, to identify the details of this continually shifting web of sound any more than he is to identify the modulations in Tristan und Isolde, but rather to hear and grasp the character of this kaleidoscope of musical themes as they are presented in varying contexts. …

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