MA PER QUEL POCO ("But Through That Glimpse")
Third Purgatory Sonata
Octet for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, Harp, Violin, Viola, and Bass
by Christopher Fulkerson
The title refers to a significant but "brief time" described in Canto 27 in the second book. The author and his companions Virgil and Statius have just passed through an ordeal by fire, having passed through a conspicuously painful river of flame by walking along a safe narrow strip on a ledge that encircles Dante's Purgatory's seventh terrace, reserved for the punishment of the Lustful (about which I have more to say below). They lie down to sleep on a rocky ledge, and before Dante falls asleep he sees the clouds part, and the stars of the heavens above. (A contrasting, though scarcely brief, view of the light in the heavens appears in my cantata REMEMBER THE STARS, a setting of texts by W.S. Merwin.) As Geoffrey Bickersteth translates lines 88 through 90,
Of things without but little could be seen,
Poco parer potea li del di fuori,
Since I try not to overlook the obvious, before going any further let me say that I do not expect that the listener to this music, or meditator on these things, is expected to throw in his chip believing in the necessity of punishment in purgation. I believe in purgation, but not through punishment. It seems probable to me that the only fair purgation is self-purgation. To the extent that purgation is part of the Festival, it is merely in this way: like any works of program music, some parts or aspects of the Festival give the listener the opportunity to reflect on his own thoughts about things; this is particularly true of the instrumental pieces in the Festival, and one of the reasons the "cycle of epicycles" requires instrumental program music.
This piece is a pocket chamber concerto that was written to a request that Oliver Knussen made of the members of the Composer Fellows at the Tanglewood Music Festival in 1988, that eternal summer when I was in residence there and he was running the Contemporary Music program. Each of us Fellows was to write a piece for the same designated ensemble; we had one week to complete the work. It was not expected that we finish something in "so brief a time," but I managed to do so by projecting only a three-minute composition.
I was pleased to integrate the idea of "so brief a time" into the nature of the piece, and to find a literary correspondence that fit a cycle I was already working on. Since I had already used the same form for this piece in the two earlier Purgatory Sonatas, it didn't take me long to figure out how to adapt ideas for the microcosmos of a three-minute chamber concerto. MA PER QUEL POCO is a "brief time" written in a "brief time" about something that happens in a "brief time." Its ideas are perforce quite concise, but the piece has the formal complexity of a much larger work. When a small artwork has a high degree of detail in relation to its structure, it is describable as "Mannerist," a term I believe accurately describes this piece. I have long admired good Mannerist artworks, particularly the madrigals of Gesualdo, one of the reasons I chose to give several performances of his entire Sixth Book with Ariel, my contemporary vocal ensemble. The quality of a Mannerist work is determined by its structural strength. If the structure is strong, which usually means, it is clear, then a Mannerist work can be quite excellent. If the structure is not strong, the proliferation of detail risks incoherence.
MA PER QUEL POCO is "about" the hope that is built on brief glimpses of things that give genuine cause for hope. It is about revealed material things that can themselves give a person knowledge of what they need or want to know is really happening, or can create patterns that can give the knowledge of what is out there, and thus gives the individual reason to carry on. Another way to say this is that this piece is not about faith, a capacity for which I myself have very little and the requirement for which I find foolish. Never ask for anything from me on the basis of faith alone. The musical form is complex enough to give many dozens of such glimpses; there are "glimpse" type moments, iconic ideas if you like, including glimpses of silence (there are different kinds of musical silence here); and there is as well a grammar of brevity and suddenness that suggests meanings. And this grammar can be generalized in other ways, since the same formal design exists in other pieces too, the other compositions in the cycle; so the nature of how associations work can be realized and revealed. My compositions, especially those of the Festival, are about the act of composition.
Life has its perils, and in the midst of peril there is hope, even if it comes only in glimpses. I was attracted to this theme because it increases the significance of a small hope, and such a thing seems very good. The tyranny implied in Dante's description of things is of course one I would never endorse. I like the idea that the piece corresponds with Siegfried's passage through fire, but I prefer Wagner's placement of a beautiful lover as the goal of the journey to Dante's punishment of the lustful. Fire as protection, yes, fire as punishment, no. If you have been punished with psychic fire, you know you have been treated unfairly. Wagner's fire is only in the way of those lustful who have no business pursuing Bruennhilda. It is not there to punish just anyone who walks by. It's not on the path to every person's Paradise, only Siegfried's, and it's an ID check, not a firewall in front of City Hall. I agree with Snorri the Godi in the ancient Icelandic story called Njal's Saga, who finds that though the Burners of Njal did so legally, since Njal was an outlaw, they should themselves be outlawed, because vengefully burning a family alive tears a hole in society. Dante is in my Festival for specific reasons, not for his precise legal code.
It seems to me that when, later in the same Canto, Dante descibes a dream he has in which Leah is made to sound more appealing than Rachel, because somehow more moral, he is hubristically missing the point of the Biblical story: as everyone knew, and shall know forever, Jacob loved Rachel, not Leah, and it is clear he loved her because she was just plain sexier. There are far too few glimpses in this world of reason to understand that such loving lust is a wonderful, beautiful thing. Certainly, it gives reason for living. I shall have to write a piece in which I create a separate Heaven for the Lustful. Indeed, I have already begun research on this project. There is just so very much to do.
I don't mind saying that the daybook Glimpse After Glimpse by my Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, with whom I studied Dzogchen from 1989 through 1990, has been helpful to me in the coordination of the glimpses on the Path of Seeing. Rinpoche was instrumental in my two Enlightenment experiences, the first of which occured at a retreat he gave, the second of which would have been unlikely without the first.
Written July 10, 2009. Last revised July 12, 2009.
The score of this piece is 24 pages long in the composer's fair hand.