Well let me preface this blog entry by stating that, yes, I have not been blogging much at all lately. I have been too busy composing and hanging out with Aidan, my cool and crazy eight year old- so that's a good thing! Now, as I finish up on most of my commissions that will be performed this concert season, I can get back to blogging, although I still have plenty of music to write for now and down the road. Here is a discussion I began writing awhile ago of a piece which was finished in mid-summer and which will be premiered in early November:
This past Spring I was contacted by Roger Dean/Lorenz, my main publishers, who told me that they had recommended me to Larry Doebler at Ithaca College to compose the commissioned work for the 34th annual Ithaca College Choral Festival to be held in November. I was quite happy with this news, and this is the first time a publisher actually produced a commission for me. Until now, almost all my commissions have come through the growth of personal relationships with people around the country, with the other few commissions the result of people who have sleuthed out my music and called me without first having a relationship (hey, any of these is fine!).
I learned more about the impressive history of the Ithaca Festival and read up on the names of those composers who have already written the commissioned piece and was pretty humbled- names like Vincent Persichetti, Steven Stucky, Chen Yi, fellow Yale classmate Dan Asia, Dan Locklair, and others.
I got to know Larry Doebler through e-mail, (what a nice man), and started looking for texts to set for this piece which was to be 4-6 minutes and for SATB a cappella or accompanied (my choice). At first I thought of doing a traditional Latin church text setting- the Persichetti commission was the first piece in the series- and as he set the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittus, I thought of reprising that, but then I decided I wanted to do something more modern as well as serious and substantive. So the poetry search now needed to be a thorough hunt for something truly special. I wouldn't just accept any old text, that was for sure. I felt it might take quite along time, but actually a poem I already knew just a little virtually leaped into my lap pleading for me to choose it- Amy Lowell's “September, 1918”, a war poem very different from other war poems as it is not about the battles themselves, but one civilian's reaction to the possible ending of war, whether an outbreak of peace could be trusted, and so on. I have always wondered about this- as WWI and WWII dragged on, how much did people wonder if the war would ever end? What would be the final toll both physically and psychologically on us all- how did we go from living in a fairly peaceful world, then to the mindset of being in the midst of world war, and then somehow back again to peace? This is something I have not experienced, yet this was reality for the generations of the first half of the twentieth century.
“SEPTEMBER, 1918” (with line numbers added for study)
by Amy Lowell
1. This afternoon was the colour of water falling through sunlight;
2. The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;
3. The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,
4. And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.
5. Under a tree in the park,
6. Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,
7. Were carefully gathering red berries
8. To put in a pasteboard box.
9. Some day there will be no war,
10. Then I shall take out this afternoon
11. And turn it in my fingers,
12. And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,
13. And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.
14. Today I can only gather it
15. And put it into my lunch-box,
16. For I have time for nothing
17. But the endeavour to balance myself
18. Upon a broken world.
Examining the text, certain things become apparent- there is an excitement at the beginning-a description of beauty and action- of sunlight, water, tumbling, houses running(!), laughing- a whole jumble of delirious actions and events. What reader encountering only these early lines in the poem would guess this is a poem that is, in some way, about war? And right here, the poem grabbed me- I am certainly very attracted to texts that work on multiple levels, that are open to multiple interpretations, that contain mystery and so on. Also at this point, the level of action attracted me, this proposed setting could have wonderful contrasts of tempo, something which appeals to me these days as I see so many US choral composers in the past twenty years writing everything at a ponderous, homophonic, soprano-dominant, 60-72 beats per minute. This text would provide ample opportunity for uptempo writing as well as more reflective moments.
So once I truly decided to set this poem I ran it past Larry and he gave it a quick approval. I became pretty excited about the project and started on it with plenty of zeal. But of course, there needed to be a lot of study of the poem, both before I wrote a single note, but also as the piece progressed. I usually start at the beginning and end at the end. Sometimes as I do this I will happen across music for a later section of a piece and try to sketch that or even write it out and lay out, in my Finale score, a slew of blank measures that will be needed in order to arrive there later. So while I tend to write linearly in time, sometimes I jump about (hopefully not like a yak- Sir Thomas Beecham wouldn't approve of that.*
So the poetic study reveals some things which are pretty obvious- there is a dramatic shift with absolutely no warning as we go from line 8 to line 9. There it is, the whiplash inducing mention of war, and apparently a proclamation that there someday will be no war(?). But can we actually trust this statement of the poet- especially when we were ambushed by even the mention of war? Does she really convince us or even herself with this statement?
Our answer comes from lines 10-13 and the subsequent information in 14-15 inform us that all these delightful images and actions in lines 1-8 truly were never trusted by the poet. They were noted but never truly enjoyed, they were put away for perhaps a future when it is okay to enjoy life.
Lines 16-18 are the final sad thought and commentary- the happiness cannot be enjoyed because the poet can do nothing but try to survive, “to “balance myself on a broken world”. Even though in September 1918 it seemed as if the war was coming to an end, the world could certainly not be trusted. And so this poem which began with such positive, ecstatic images ends in distrust and sadness. The poem has traversed so many emotions and truly given us a kaleidoscopic tour of the mind of a citizen living in time of war.
So here were the challenges ahead of me- how could I pull off representing all these emotions and how could I set that line 9, and those final sad thoughts to the best of my abilities. Big challenges, indeed.
Here were some of my solutions (the piece is already almost done, far ahead of schedule, by the way).
The opening lines are set to up-tempo music, a busy triplet theme in the piano intro sets up the busy-ness and this theme will come and go through the piece- it's the theme (almost solely in the piano) that represents the busy action parts of the poem. But to hint at something darker, there are already slightly strange dissonances in the piano and/or the voices in an otherwise major (or suspended 4th- no third) tonality. These odd, momentary dissonances are the slight clue that all is not happiness and bright and that things will change in this piece from light to dark. Btw, the vocal parts in this opening sound a bit like Randall Thompson or Vaughn Williams, a number of simple chords moving variously in parallel or contrary motion to each other.
The music dies down and then the line 9 text arrives. Here there is a cross-relationship battle between major and minor chords, as well as conflicting major and minor scalar motion (somewhat like the odd scalar conflicts in Tallis). The men's voices intone the beginning of this in a repetitive dirge-like manner, and the women layer on top of this in long, ascending stretto lines. The setting of this line of poetry ends with the very loud, highly pitched culmination of this dirge and ascending stretto- I expect it to be pretty powerful when it is sung by the choir.
The text of line 10-13 suggest a return to the feelings (and music?) of the opening. I do actually do this, but certainly not verbatim at all. At first the return is dreamlike- text from lines 10-13 fit the music of the beginning but the tempo starts slower, as if we were trying to recapture that opening feeling, but were having some difficulty doing so. Finally, the tempo does get back to the beginning tempo but before long we have arrived at the ending lines of poetry. There I use a device I have used in two earlier serious pieces- setting a text line or two in a chorale-like way, as if that text were perhaps the core, or the message, or moral of the entire poem. These chorales (often just a few bars long, especially in this piece) are usually in 4/4 time and may contain suspensions to draw attention to important words. It's as if the music has to become simple so that we hear the message from this Greek chorus. The line where this is the most obvious is line 16 “for I have time for nothing”, meaning literally no ability to appreciate anything of beauty. In this context, the statement is quite drastic. It means we virtually cannot endure war and its psychological destruction of the human spirit. The chorale weaves in and out as the poem and music end, and there is also a reference to a very simple melody which also has a very piquant harmony attached to it which was used way back in lines 7-9- about the innocent little boys. And then we finish in a choral unison of the last words “to balance myself upon a broken world”. I wrestled with how to set this ending quite a bit (and probably am still doing so, since I have plenty of time to tweak this piece). What does it mean if I set it chordally or if I set it in unison, what is the psychology of each? I am not sure I can totally put answers into English in response to this, but I kept coming back to the fact that a unison setting of the final words gives them more power- there is no distraction by choral harmonic sound, and there is also a unification of thought through the whole choir- hey are all delivering the message together. So I think this really is the best choice for the ending.
Currently the piece clocks in at about six and a half minutes. I talked to Larry to make sure I hadn't overshot the commission length too much and he was fine with it. We'll see how my final tweaks affect the duration, and what other tweaks happen-- I'm always playing with choices in regard to the exact dynamics, tempi I am going to mark in a piece. I'm also constantly trying to figure out just how long final notes of phrases for singers (especially if they are a hard consonant) should be and whether they end on a strong or weak beat (yes, these tiny details of release points can make a difference to the sound and also the psychology of a setting).
I'm very pleased with the piece so far and I hope that the audience is drawn into the drama and personal voice of this war poem set from the point of view of a civilian. I think it is one of Amy Lowell's very best works. She is not a major poet but she certainly had her own voice, and it is still fresh enough to speak to us, unlike a number of other poets of her generation.
P.S. The other two pieces where I have used the chorale idea are in a setting (for SATB and strings, one on a part or larger ensemble) which I titled “1944” from H.D.'s poem “Christmas, 1944” where I use the music from chorales in the J.S. Bach Christmas Oratorio to set some of the words, and also a piece called [HUSH] which is about divorce and young children surviving that situation (the divorce references in that poem are actually quite veiled).
* "What can you do with it? It's like a lot of yaks jumping about".
- Sir Thomas on Beethoven's Seventh Symphony