The Canti Lunatici
of Bernard Rands
by Christopher Fulkerson
Written for the San Francisco Symphony Magazine, 1985
A photocopy of the original publication, with Bernard Rands' photograph and signature, is available.
WRITINGS ON MUSIC
* * * * * * * * * *
Bernard Rands was born in Sheffield, England, on 2 March 1935 and currently lives in San Diego. His Canti Lunatici (Lunatic Songs) exist in two forms: One, for soprano and chamber ensemble, was completed in January 1982 and first performed in San Diego the following month by the Sonor Ensemble; Carol Plantamura was the soloist and Bernard Rands conducted. The first San Francisco performance of this was given on 18 October 1982 by Carol Plantamura and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Jean-Louis LeRoux conducting. The orchestra version of the Canti Lunatici was completed in November 1982 and first performed in December of that year in London by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with the composer conducting and Dorothy Dorow the soloist. The first American performance, in July 1983 at the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder, was conducted by Bernard Rands with Carol Plantamura the soloist. This week's performances of the orchestral Canti Lunatici are the first in the San Francisco Symphony's regular subscription series, and the first in the city. The work is scored for two flutes (the first doubling piccolo, the second, alto flute), two oboes, two clarinets (the first doubling E-flat soprano, the second, Bb bass), two bassoons; two each of horns, trumpets, trombones, and harps; celesta, piano, a battery of percussion consisting of two sets of maracas, two sets of suspended cymbals, tamborine, two each of large and small triangles, claves, side drum, temple blocks, tam-tam, snare drum, bongo drums, almglocken, vibraphone, marimba, and two tubular bells in E-flat and A; and strings.
Whatever the descriptive term under which the music of our entire prolific century will eventually be gathered, it will probably stress our temporal and temperamental proximity to the Romantic era. Perhaps ours will be the Expressionist period.
The two features that Romantic and contemporary music have most in common are their rich expressive pallette and their extraordinary capacity for union with the sounds, rhythms, and imagery of literature. Whereas composers in the past were hard pressed to find musical equivalents to literature even as regular and unperiodic as blank verse, today there is musical "prose," musical "poetry," and all stylistic gradations in between. And, unlike other revolutions in music history -- those, of, for instance, Monteverdi or, to a lesser extent, Beethoven -- that of the twentieth century allows its composer to express not only the new psychic complexities peculiar to its era, but to reach backwards into the past, and to probe the hidden recesses and archetypes of human experience. When the contemporary idiom finds a gifted representative wishing to use the expanded expressive and literary capabilities of the new music to create tonal imagery for texts dealing with the most basic of mankind's mystic preoccupations -- as when Bernard Rands took up his pen to write the music of the moon in his Canti Lunatici -- the result is deeply affecting, as only the best Romantic or contemporary music can be.
Rands completed the Canti Lunatici (Lunatic Songs) in January 1982. In spite of its titular designation as "songs," the Canti Lunatici employs an approach to form which, in its blend of intuition and organization, suggests a very contemporary sort of Romanticism. The work is not a conventional song cycle, but, as the composer has observed, "a labyrinth created by the compositional arrangement of the resources of voice, text, instruments, and musical idea rather than a successoin of songs with orchestral accompaniment, each with its own musical and formal autonomy." In other words, the Canti Lunatici is a kind of single-movement composition in which the musical line is articulated by a soprano voice and in which a series of fifteen poems about the moon -- poems in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish -- give vocal and orchestral expression and commentary upon one another. This Joycean labyrinthine formal design is arrived at by the confluences of "two principal cycles, one of text and one of musical definition, each revolving at a fixed but different rate."
Drawing as he does on a broad background of knowledge about music of all times and places, and drawing as well on his considerable experience as a conductor (in which capacity he is in ever-increasing demand), Rands's own principal creative resources, the human voice and literature, are hardly arbitrary or academic interests. He has called the voice "the most intimate and immediate connection we have" with music and writes for it frequently. Even when composing for instruments, Rands fashions his ideas in an essentially vocal way. "I am primarily focused around the human voice and its behavior, and that fans out into solo (instrumental) ramifications. I do try to make my music sing and speak in certain ways. And the most natural aspect is small intervals.
Which is to say that Rands thinks of instruments as having identities owing much if not all to the listener's "intimate and immediate connection" to the voice. Here comparison with other composers is illuminating. Beethoven's vocal music is instrumental in nature and difficult, sometimes impossible to execute convincingly in performance. J.S. Bach certainly had an intimate familiarity with the voice, but, since his compositional ideal included contrapuntal equality of all constituent melodic parts of a work, his vocal melodies are often written the same way as his instrumental ones, resulting in music that is usually more difficult to sing than to play. The themes of a Mozart symphony are essentially identical to those in his opera arias, and in this aspect his wish to write similarly for voices and instruments parallels Bach's, though Mozart excercized greater restraint, resulting in a deceptively simple melodic surface. The brilliance of his technique lies in his sophisticated art of balancing and contrasting irregular phrases in such a way as to make them regular yet interesting, and the best Mozart singers are also fine musicians. One can see that, as music has developed, the singer's musical responsibility has grown. Wagner's skill with the voice, respect for fine singing musicians, and willingness to turn the conventional texture of vocal melody with instrumental accompaniment topsy-turvy in the persuit of his dramatic ends resulted in a kind of expressionist vocal line derived from the inflections of the German language fitted to Frend and Italian declamation, shorn of its pretensions and dramatically irrelevant coloratura. Wagner's expressive inspiration was au fond quite simple.
And so it is with Bernard Rands. Like Mozart's or Wagner's, his tonal language is extremely sophisticated, but, as he recently said, "What makes most sense to me are the patterns which most closely correspond to a natural musical declamation -- people singing in general. That's not to say I try to make music folk-like..., but my thinking in the last seven or eight years has been to make different layers of complexity, where the fundament is probably not very different from a folk song."
The sources of Rands' ease with and interest in the voice can be traced to his youth and his professional training. His earliest musical experiences were in his home town of Sheffield, England, where his mother, a contralto "with an extraordinary voice," would often sing for community events, usually accompanied by her husband. The elder Rands could, according to his son, "make music on almost any instrument at hand." From this description alone, it is not surprising that the neophyte musician, who began to compose at the age of thirteen, formed a conception of music as being essentially vocal, even when instrumental. After studying music and literature at the University of Wales ("I was among the first generation of people to be educated by the state of Britain," he explains, an opportunity he would not have had in an older Britain: His father, a miner, lacked the wherewithal to send his son to a major university), Rands' vocal proclivities were reinforced by his three principal teachers, all pre-eminent Italian composers: Luigi Dallapiccola, Luciano Berio, and Bruno Maderna. All of these composers wrote frequently for the voice, yet (they felt) unlike many Italian composers of the past, they kept their style open to the question of finding interesting instrumental clothing for their vocal models. Maderna, in particular, helped Rands by performing his music, always the most substantial encouragement a composer can receive.
Returning to England, Rands assumed a teaching post at his alma mater, but before long went to London, where he founded the new music ensemble, Sonor. After several fellowships and guest professorships in England and the United States, Rands came to san Diego in 1975 to teach for a year at the University of California. After almost a decade, he is still there, and he has established another Sonor Ensemble.
The year after he completed the Canti Lunatici, Bernard Rands received a commission from Paul Sperry and the American Choral Foundation for a piece for tenor and instrumental ensemble. The resulting work, Canti del Sole (Songs of the Sun), is a companion piece to the Canti Lunatici. The works do not share musical themes, but their labyrinthine formal designs are similar, and they do share a common poem: The last poem of the Canti del Sole is the first of the Canti Lunatici; and the last line of one work, "Ed a subito sera" ("And in no time it's evening"), is the first line of the next. The two "labyrinths have similar tonal bases, the ambiguous interval of the tritone. The songs of the Canti del Sole have dual tonal centers of B and F, while those of the Canti Lunatici are structured around A and E-flat. It was for the orchestral version of his Canti del Sole that Rands was awarded the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Rands has received many awards, but perhaps his most cherished is the Pulitzer, which in terms of prestige (the cash award is only $1,000), is the highest honor an American composer may earn. This is appropriate, for even before leaving England, Rands did not consider himself a "British" composer in the way that, say, Sir Michael Tippett or Lord Benjamin Britten are British. Rands prefers the greater diversity and openness of the United States ("This country is a continent!" he exclaims) to the "very stifling" British musical scene.
Of the two independent but interrelating cycles in the Canti Lunatici, the first, of text, consists of a series of poems in three groups, reflecting the moon's waxing (the first seven poems), the fullness (the eigth poem), and the waning (the remaining seven poems). There is also a "narrative" in which the composer describes "the extraodinary and unpredictable responses of the human psyche. The second cycle, that of musical parameters, elaborates the "narrative" resulting at different times in clarity, obscurity, ambiguity, mystery, and eccentricity."
The Canti Lunatici opens with thin wisps of sound produced by the solo soprano singing bocca chiusa -- with the mouth closed: the moon is as far as twilight from its fullness. As the soprano gradually opens her mouth to sing out, her melodic line touches gently and suggestively on the expressive tones of several forms of minor scales at once. From this moody atmosphere the Italian text by Quasimodo moves effortlessly into Joyce's "Simples," the first line of which is also in Italian. There are repeated e-flats which ring out, bell-like, in the orchestra, and which are an important tonal image, returning periodically in the work and providing its close. Sensitive to any suggestion of the moon, the voice rises ecstatically at the words "la luna," "the moon," "der Mond," or their poetic synonyms, such as "Delight of the skies," or "Mother of stars." This is music of praise to the first object of man's worship. Soon, the bell-like E-flats grow myriad fioriture, sending out gushing woodwind fanfares and scurrying string passages in a second important musical image: that of water (almost as much as its texts are about the moon, the music of the Canti Lunatici is about water). At Lorca's words "y el corazon se siente isla en el infinito" ("and the heart is like an island in the infinite"), ripples of tremolandi spread through the strings, and the harps gush glissandi. As the moon's visage continues to grow, a reference is made to another contemporary work, Schoenberg's Perrot Lunaire (Moonstruck Pierrot). Schoenberg's composition represents a particular human character (and was so staged in the works' premiere), and the moon's significance for Pierrot is as an idea, a symbol that transforms and exalts him. Canti Lunatici, however, has no protagonist other than the composer/poet ruminating as Man the Moonwatcher over an actual celestial object somehow possessed of supernatural powers. A characterization concerned with symbols, Schoenberg's composition is extraverted as representation, introverted as idea; a meditation concerned with the psychological effect of an actual physical object, Rands's composition is introverted as representation, extroverted as idea. After his setting or Arp's "Ein inniger unsinniger Mond," ("An intimate insane moon"), Rands recalls in a flute solo the second movement of Pierrot Lunaire, "Der kranke Mond," ("The sick moon"), a duet for voice and flute. This is the only easy comparison that can be made between the works and involves merely outward, lunar surfaces.
At the eight poem, Arp's "Ein grosses Mondtreffen ist anberaeumt wordon" ("A great moon-meeting has been arranged") there is a profusion of the musical and textual references of the entire work, and its climax: the fullness of the moon. Whitman's "Look down fair moon: begins its waning, and that of the Canti Lunatici: The soprano line looks down from its highest register. As each successive poem takes the moon further out of sight, the tonality and the vocal line descend; there are now even falling intervals for the words "the moon." At the last reference to the moon in English, in Shelley's "The Waning Moon," a huge chord explodes and dissolves in the strings, dispelling any tension left in the work. The Canti Lunatici ends, as it began, with a poem by Quasimodo, "Finita e la notte" ("The night is done"). Repeated A's in the orchestral chimes ring the changes of the dawn. Gradually, the voice extinguishes itself, becoming once more the thin wisp it first was.
Christopher Fulkerson is a Bay Area composer and conductor. He is Music Director of Ariel, a contemporary vocal ensemble, and Theory Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus.