Wail of the Voice: Wernick

Richard Wernick retired from the Penn composition faculty a number of years ago, but his presence is still felt indirectly, in that two of his students – myself and Jay Reise – presently teach at Penn. At the time of a concert for Dick’s 75th birthday a few years ago I wrote:

Some teachers of composition make it easier for the student to compose; some make it harder. Richard Wernick made it harder, and I am grateful that he did. Dick encouraged me to think deeply about fundamental musical issues, to work at making pitches truly matter, to hold myself to the toughest standards, to avoid simplistic solutions. Striving in his own composing for similar goals, he earned the right to be a kind of biblical prophet, issuing a radically uncompromising call to the highest artistic ideals. Thank you, Dick, for continuing to strive, for clinging to your vision of what a composer can be, for enriching us all with music of substance and expressive power.

It’s Dick’s most recent string quartet that we will hear at Friday’s Voice of the Wail concert, January 11 at 8:00 pm in Fisher-Bennet Hall on the Penn campus, performed by the ensemble for which it was written, the Daedalus Quartet. Here is Dick’s program note on the piece:

In 1962 I began a two year residency with the Bay Shore Public Schools.  This was under a program entitled the Young Composers Project, funded by the Ford Foundation and administered by the Music Educators National Conference.   During this time I had the privilege of meeting and working with Howard Koch, a remarkable string pedagogue with a very special gift of eliciting the very best from students of all ages.  During those years I wrote pieces for chamber orchestra, elementary, junior high school and high school bands and chorus. The highlight of those two years, however, was working with, and composing music for, an extraordinary group of high school string players (the violist was actually a junior high school student who had been conscripted for the group).  In addition to my String Quartet #1 which I wrote for them, Howard and I collaborated with them on a program of the Bartok 2nd Quartet and two movements of the Schubert C Major Quintet.  It was a very special time; having come from the world of music for theater, dance and TV, the String Quartet #1 must be counted as the first piece of serious concert music that I acknowledge.

Skipping ahead to 2009, the Daedalus Quartet were doing a residency in Bay Shore and my name came up in connection with the projected possibility of my composing a new string quartet for them.  To my astonishment there were people in Bay Shore—former students—who actually remembered me from that time nearly a half century ago.  The result of that encounter was the ultimate composition of my Eighth String Quartet, written for the Daedalus Quartet, and commissioned by the Bay Shore Schools Arts Education Fund and the Islip Arts Council. It is dedicated to the memory of Howard Koch.

My Eighth Quartet is the only one (so far) in four movements.  The main body of the piece is found in the two slow movements, numbers two and four, which, while quite different from one another, contain much in common in the way of melody and harmony.  The first and third movements are unrelated either to each other or the slow movements.

The first movement is fast and energetic, much in the manner of a toccata.

The second movement—Arioso Serioso I— is cast in the style of a chaconne, a set of variations above a repeated bass line.  In the case of this movement, however, the bass line and principal motif are exactly the same, but proceed at different speeds, and this brief “motif” is also the principal underpinning of the movement’s harmonic structure.

The third movement is the quirky one.  As the title would suggest, it is not a Menuetto at all; it just sounds like one.  The movement is a variation on a short piano piece I composed for Network for New Music in Philadelphia who, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, invited twenty five composers to each write a variation on the same Diabelli Waltz that Beethoven had used for his monumental Diabelli Variations.  A rather hubristic notion at the very least, but quite a bit of fun.

The fourth movement  — Arioso Serioso II — is, in a sense, a continuation of the second movement but with the inclusion of additional material.  I derived this added material from a sacred service I had composed many years earlier, and, although it is highly transformed from its original version, I found its use in this, a memorial piece, perfectly appropriate.


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