In this particular case, I wrote for Harmonia’s principal bassoonist, Jeff Eldridge, aka Listener Jeff, who also happens to be about the most knowledgeable person I’ve ever met when it comes to orchestral literature. Since he (and all of us) were robbed of the chance to play in orchestra together, I thought I’d give him something to play that was based on great orchestral works but designed to entertain one person solo.
So I took a line for a walk. That’s to say, I wrote a multi-movement suite in several movements where each movement starts with the opening bars of a famous orchestral bassoon solo, but then I took the melody in a different direction.
I gave the movements titles that evoke something about their original source: the dudka is the ancient Russian pipe instrument that Stravinsky evoked with the opening of The Rite of Spring. “Budapest” takes its name from the fact that Bartok’s Dance Suite was written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the merger of Buda and Pest. “Dawn” refers to Ravel’s “Morning Song of the Jester.” “Broomsticks” should be obvious. “Dervishes” refers to the whirling dervishes of the Ottoman Empire; this is the group (supposedly) to which the Kalendar-Prince belonged. And finally, “Hobgobblins” refers to the troll in Peer Gynt, but since that’s the finale, I went crazy with the references.
This was a tremendously fun exercise and I’ve been meaning to do it for other instruments. But of course, I haven’t, so if any other composer wants to steal the idea, I suppose they should!
My latest piece is called The Muses. I’d love to tell you what genre it falls into, but I honestly don’t know. Hence this blog post.
To get the ball rolling, here’s how The Muses works: the piece is for chorus & orchestra, and it sets to music an Ancient Greek text by the 1st century historian Diodorus Siculus. The text gives a background summary of the nine muses of Greek myth. Each muse is named along with her area of specialty (music, dance, history, etc.), followed by a short etymological description of what the name means.
Men have given the Muses their name from the word muein, which signifies the teaching of those things which are noble and expedient and are not known by the uneducated. For the name of each Muse, they say, men have found a reason appropriate to her: Cleio is so named because the praise which poets sing in their encomia bestows great glory (kleos) upon those who are praised…
Before Diodorus launches into the list of the nine names, he starts with a brief discourse on the word “muse” itself. Of course, that’s where my piece starts, and that first bit becomes the introduction to the nine episodes that constitute the piece.
Given the shape of this text, I considered writing a theme and variations, one variation for each of the muses, but I scrapped that idea when the text didn’t want to coalesce into a clear “theme” (i.e. a single, singable melody.) The introduction, which would have been a “theme” became more of a “thematic field” with melodic bits that I immediately started to develop.
But I didn’t give up on the idea entirely. Which is to say that those melodic bits from the opening section became the basis for MOST of the music in each of the episodes. But each episode also has some stuff that’s new, and occasionally I re-used material that was introduced in one episode in a later episode.
So, you could call this piece a “thematic field and development episodes” but that doesn’t really have much of a ring to it. The next best thing I could come up with was “tone poem for chorus and orchestra.” And I suppose that it might be considered a tone poem, but I’m hesitant to call it one because usually in tone poetry there is a dramatic element, i.e. something happens. (Consider z.B. Dvorak’s The Wood Dove or Strauss’s Don Juan.)
Another thing that it might be but it’s not is a “choral symphony.” I would put something like Rachmaninoff’s The Bells in this group. The Muses is just one movement and has no symphonic impetus behind it.
Now that I’ve ruled all those out, I think I might have put my finger on it. You know what this piece really is? It’s a ballet chanté. It should have been obvious to me that I was writing a dance piece without the dance given that it was a response to Daphnis et Chloé. And yet, someone I didn’t realize it. But I’ll tell you how I figured it out:
Not two months ago, a conductor friend called to tell me that he was planning to perform my Recollected Dances as a ballet with his company in the suburbs of Seattle. I went to the performance and I fell in love with it. It worked incredibly well, and it’s made me realize that a ton of my music (maybe all of it?) would benefit from a choreographic treatment.
The Muses would just work SO WELL as a ballet, and I think that many smaller companies would love it. It’s basically got nine solos for nine ballerinas, any of which could easily be supported by the corps. And there’s no obvious reason it needs to include boys (but there’s no reason it couldn’t) so I think it’s pretty flexible and would play to many company’s strengths.
So I guess this post turned from a plea for help into an exhortative advertisement to regional ballet companies. That’s blogging for you!
The Muses, op. 54 for chorus and orchestra was composed in early 2022, written specifically for the combined forces of Seattle’s Harmonia Orchestra & Chorus.
The text is in Ancient Greek and comes from Diodorus Siculus’ The Library of History. If the thought of having your choir sing in Greek gives you the heebie-jeebies, let me put your mind at ease: I’ve had the original Greek text transliterated into latin script, and it’s just as easy to read as any modern Romance language. Your choir is probably comfortable singing in Latin, and I’d say there’s a similar “hit rate” in terms of recognizing the meanings of individual words from Greek roots that have found their way into English as there is with Latin.
The piece is a quasi-theme and variations, but I would more accurately describe it more as a “thematic field and development episodes.” (It might secretly be a ballet.) Each of the nine muses of Ancient Greek mythology gets its own episode:
Cleio, the muse of history
Euterpe, the muse of music
Thalia, the muse of comedy
Melpomene, the muse of tragedy
Terpsichore, the muse of dance
Erato, the muse of love poetry
Polymnia, the muse of hymnody
Urania, the muse of astronomy
Calliope, the muse of epic poetry
There is also an introduction and a coda, which invoke and explain the muses more generally.
Program notes from the original performance can be found here and the texts and translations here. The full score for perusal is here.
One of the great pleasures of having your own podcast is that you get to go on other people’s podcasts. It’s a whole ecosystem out there, and we’re all in it together!
I get a little hyper when I go on other people’s shows because I’m usually talking about myself or my work, subjects upon which I am but rarely asked to opine. On my show The Classical Gabfest, the whole point is that my cohosts and I don’t talk about ourselves, we talk about music and news. Of course our personal lives come through in little glimpses, and I quite like that. It’s good to get to know someone slowly.
But, if you are curious to hear my thoughts on conducting, composing, and non-classical music…
This is an interview show wherein artistic guests talk about the professional demons that have haunted them along their career paths. We had the hosts on our show in January, at which time Kensho and Tiffany and I revealed a bit about our ups and downs and bumps along the road.
In my episode, I ended up talking more abstractly about the conducting profession as a whole, but I definitely got into some of my own stuff. I think it was a good conversation.
Also an interview podcast, this time specifically for composers. The host, Steve Danielson, is a choral conductor and composer so the guests mainly come from the choral world. He’s had one some pretty well-known figures, Jake Runestad being a standout example.
I really like the structure of this show. In the first half, Steve asks the composer about their musical background and career; in the second half, he plays four representative works (chosen by the composer) and has a little discussion about how each fits into their output and artistry.
I chose my works based on whom I perceived his audience to be — mainly choral music aficionados — so I started off with a very old choral piece (which I still quite like) and then moved onto brass music (a movement from The Dwarf Planets), my piano sonata, and Acadia Fanfare.
On another show (or a different day) I might have chosen four different works, but I think these ones serve their purpose quite well.
Putting It Together
In my most recent episode, we talked about what is easily the most fucked up song in the very fucked up (and completely perfect in every way) Sweeney Todd. It’s pretty wild!
The Classical Gabfest
Did you think I wasn’t going to include my own show in this little list? Not bloody likely! We just did another All-Games Extravaganza this week, and those tend to be very popular with our hardcore user base, so here it is:
Milhaud’s La création du monde came into the public domain in 2020, so I decided to create my own edition for a performance I gave that year.
I have newly typeset the parts and done some very light editorial work. The main value-add I did was to rationalize the percussion part from a 1920s multi-staff disaster into a readable part. My set includes trumpet parts as originally written in C and also transposed to B-flat.