“A Sibyl”, Wagner, and Chopin

I wasn’t teaching at my day job this summer for the first time in a while, so I had a little more time than usual – but the unbridgeable gap between what one hopes to accomplish and what actually happens remained wide. Still, a few things got done.

The most important task accomplished was completing A Sibyl, my Fromm commission for Collage New Music. This is a cycle on texts by Susan Stewart that she wrote specifically for the project, and is scored for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. Mary Mackenzie will be the soloist. I estimate the piece will run about 25 minutes. There are six songs, setting poems that build on what can be found in Virgil and Ovid about the mysterious figure of the Cumaean Sibyl in somewhat the way Susan built her texts for my Songs for Adam (a work for baritone and orchestra) upon the Biblical stories. Collage has set the premiere of A Sibyl for the afternoon of October 15, the same day Emmanuel Music will do a motet of mine in the morning at Emmanuel Church, and Winsor Music will do my recent quintet for oboe and piano quartet in the evening. Three performances in Greater Boston in a single day is an amazing trifecta of good luck – more details to follow.

I spent many summer hours at the piano, working on the B-flat minor Scherzo of Chopin and playing through the piano score of Die Walküre. On the basis of playing that score, I can confirm a few things you already knew about the Wagner: yes, it really is very long;  yes, if you had a dollar for every diminished seventh chord in the piece you could retire today, and yes, the harmony in the Todesverkündigung is impossibly gorgeous. What I had not realized is how many passages throughout the opera are essentially recitative of a relatively straightforward kind – the “endless melody” you read about in your undergrad music history textbook is not quite so endless as Wagner fools us into thinking.

I still get bothered by the amount of literal repetition in the Chopin Scherzi; I suppose I wish the pieces were actually four more ballades. At least there is less literal repetition in the B-flat minor than in the B-minor, the other one I have practiced. Much of my time was spent on baffling questions of fingering – when it is better to stretch, when to cross…  Fingering remains a mystery to me – I often don’t realize when I am doing something unnecessarily awkward, or don’t see what could be a viable alternative. The cliché about the easiest fingering not necessarily being the best fingering is not terribly helpful when “easiest” and “best” seem to be moving targets that shift from day to day. Pianistic issues aside, engaging with pieces by playing them is essential nourishment for me – as a composer, but also as a person, and I was glad to have a little more time for that nourishment over this past summer.

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