The Ship of Souls
While reading Dante I was quite delighted with a certain panoramic image from Canto Two of the Purgatory. Dante and Virgil are standing on a hill outside Purgatory when they see the Ship of Souls fly toward them, loaded with passengers fresh from Earth. This is from my preferred translation of the Dante, by Geoffrey L. Bickersteth:
Then as drew nigh to us and still more nigh
the bird of God, he yet more brightly shone,
so that mine eyes endured him not close by,
But down I bent them; he to shore came on
with a ship, which so swiftly and lightly hied,
that of its bulk the water swallowed none.
Like one whose bliss by his look seemed ratified,
on the poop stood the heavenly mariner;
and more than a hundred spirits sat inside.
In terms of form this pair of companion pieces, “The Bird of God…” “…And More Than a Hundred Spirits,” is a tiento and a toccata. The ancient Spanish instrumental tiento is a fantasy with the peculiar self-identifying agenda of carving through the texture, of, one might say, finding a path through the available musical space, in order to form a shape. Thus the form is perhaps the only one in which voice leading itself is the issue. Schenkerians should look into it. The term comes from the Spanish verb tentar (“to try out,” “to attempt,” “to test”). Perhaps an idiomatic translation of the term would be to call it an “essay;” that does seem to me to correspond to my harp solo L’UCCEL DIVINO. A tiento uses its texture the way a fugue uses its theme. The term toccata comes from the Italian verb meaning “to touch;” it was originally a piece intended as a display of manual dexterity, also usually for a solo instrument. So together these two pieces are a “test piece” and a “touch piece.”
L’uccel divino means literally “the divine bird,” this of course is an epithet for an angel, and the angel in question is the Captain of the Ship of Souls that goes back and forth between Earth and Dante’s Purgatory. This piece is a study of the character of that Captain, imagined in both his interior life and at his duties. The piece was written over a long period and revised repeatedly due to the limitations of the harp; writing for harp is most annoying, I almost wish I didn’t love the instrument so much. Coming from the mostly guitar-oriented Rock and Roll background in High School, I have been fascinated from my beginnings with the many plectral instruments in Classical music, and the harp seems in sound to be the most purely beautiful of them all. I confess that I probably would not have written a solo harp piece called “The Angel” if I had realized what a cliché it is, what with angels being depicted as playing harps in heaven; fortunately I did not think of this, and for once at least I was well in step with a common icon. (I am being too harsh with myself; I frequently think of the archetypal significance of my performing forces.) I was not thinking tiento-like, that is texturally per se, when I wrote the piece, I realized only much later that that is what the piece is. But I certainly knew of tientos and the type of improvisation they usually represent. I was well aware of the “test” that it was to try to find just the right connections and contrasts between events suggested by the architectural design I had created to write the piece. There are numerous episodes, and shortly before the end there is a mysterious presage of the repeated-note idea of the coming piece. It ends with a bravura flourish, and is eleven minutes long.
Several years ago L’UCCEL DIVINO was a birthday gift to my good friend Ruth Caron Jacobs, opera lover, arts patron and writer on music, whose middle name was that of the Ferryman over the River Styx (though she accounted it differently), another worker in the heavenly transit industry whose job is similar to that of the Captain of the Ship of Souls. Ruth supported my 1998 concert and gave generously for this one, but died before the real expense of the program could be known. Unknown to me, she in fact died on the day I began to work in earnest on Celestial Sixties II, December 26th, Saint Stephen’s Day. I will miss her; so far, she has been my only actual patron. She was well-known for having a strong personality, but sometimes got a little addled in conversation; she liked my Harpsichord Concerto, and liked to tell people it was dedicated to her. It was in fact this piece that was dedicated to her. I hope she liked it. I am reminded that when Elliott Carter dedicated his Piano Concerto to Igor Stravinsky, it was Carter’s Double Concerto that Stravinsky called a masterpiece. But I overreach myself.
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Version for Solo Harp, 1998, Available
Version for Two Harps In Preparation