ONE WINTER SPARROW
for Soprano Solo, Treble Voices, and Piano

by Christopher Fulkerson
CF's Composition Desk

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This piece was written on the afternoon of July 26, 1988, while I was staying in Serenak, the mansion where I and most of the other Composer Fellows were housed by the Boston Symphony during the summer of 1988 when I was at Tanglewood, which I don't mind saying was the best two months of my life. I ate and drank and slept and wrote music and went to concerts and seminars; in short, most of the characteristics of paradise were available, and for this, Boston and its Symphony will always be dear to me; they treated me better than anyone else, without exception, ever has. I had probably not been as happy since, many years earlier, the Mickey Mouse Club told me on television that they liked me (as a child I was unaware that other people think television and movies aren't personal messages). I took my tenure at Tanglewood quite seriously; it was actually a rather disciplined time for me, since I used it to compose as much as I could: it was the one episode in my life when I could plausibly believe it was my duty to write music. For two idyllic months, of which I will never trade even an instant, it really happened that I got to practice my vocation. I haven't known success as a composer, so I make it a sort of physical law in my universe that all moments pass through that time. I should have enjoyed it even better had there been more of the sacred trinity of wine, women, and song; but there was at least plenty of song. Unknown to me for another few days, my maternal grandfather had died the day before I wrote this piece; he died on St. Christopher's Day. With his wife he was one of the only people in my entire extended family to try, at least at key moments, to actively encourage my musical ambitions. One example of this will have to suffice here. He knew that my father opposed any other music career for me than one in country and western music, which I have always detested (with exceptions, chiefly Johnny Cash), and when my father grounded me from playing for one semester in High School, my grandfather made his views known to me by simply handing me his guitar and saying, "Here. Play!"

The sound of this piece came as an "einfall;" the music just appeared more or less fully developed in my mind. The idea of the chromatically related fourths chords came first, and then there was the typical casting about for a suitable poem; fortunately I went to the festival prepared with poetry to set. The snow of W.S. Merwin's little scene of a bird's encounter in the snow with a cat seemed a perfect fit with the cold, slippery sound of the chords. The piece was given its world premiere performances by the Concert Chorus of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, where I was working at the time. It was one of two short pieces the Chorus did during my eight years on its faculty. The text is from a cycle of short poems called Some Winter Sparrows, which appears in the collection The Drunk In the Furnace by W.S. Merwin, one of my favorite poets. I would like to complete the whole set of winter sparrows... Merwin and I were introduced through the kind offices of the music critic and psychologist Paul Moor, and he has personally given his permission in writing that I may use his poems; I have set him several times, always with pleasure. The piece is just one minute long, but by the end the chorus divides into a twelvefold blizzard on the word "maybe."

More snow: under a green fir-bush bowed low
                        With flakes broad as cat's paws
             You hunch, puffed: if you do not
             Move maybe it will go away.           

Only years after writing this piece did I learn that I had unknowingly thereby honored the first owner of the mansion in which I was staying when I wrote it; July 26 is Serge Koussevitsky's birthday. There are other portentious musical anniversaries on this day of the year, among which may be mentioned the birthday of Franz Xavier Wolfgang Mozart, who was born to Wolfgang and Constanze Mozart in 1791 after his father's untimely death; in 1782 the composer John Field was born; in 1882 the World Premiere of Wagner's opera PARSIFAL was given; and in 1985 the World Premiere of Elliott Carter's PENTHODE, a work especially important to me. It was the birthday in 1959 of one of my favorite actors, Kevin Spacey, who is surely one of the best Richard the Thirds of all time; this has musical significance to me since I have done sketches of an opera on Richard III. It was also the creation in 1958 of Charles Windsor as Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester.

The score of ONE WINTER SPARROW is engraved and is thirteen pages long. Hard copy of the score is $5. A recording is available.

Download the Score

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Updated 10/26/2011.

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