SCRITTI DI LEONARDO
Cantata #2 for Tenor Solo, Madrigal Quartet,
Flute, Bass Clarinet, Guitar, Harp, and Viola
|Music by Christopher Fulkerson
Text by Leonardo da Vinci
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Nowhere in his legacy is Leonardo's relentlessly questing nature more apparent than in the several thousands of pages of his notebooks. In addition to their astonishing appeal as literature, what attracted me to set portions of Leonardo's notebooks to music was the peculiar effect that time has had upon his philosophizing. I had read The Western Intellectual Tradition by Jacob Bronowski and Bruce Mazlich, and, when I read them on Leonardo, I began to be drawn into the discovery of the suggestiveness of detail in imagery and idea and the relationship between different kinds of thoughtful probing that have existed at different times in the vast project that is civilization. I now know "tradition" to be a double-edged term, but Bronowski and Mazlich were guides to a new realm of how ideas could be formed, or discovered, and related. I began to read Leonardo's Notebooks for varieties of intellectual adventure.
SCRITTI DI LEONARDO ("Writings of Leonardo") marked the end of a chapter in my compositional development; after SCRITTI, many features of my music changed. A composer's proper training has always caused a bias toward the musical element of pitch, but beginning about four years prior to the SCRITTI the element of rhythm tended to become increasingly more important in my creative process. More and more I discover that the pitches do just as I want them to when I allow invention to be designed by proximate rhythm at the service of the larger rhythm of the form. In the SCRITTI there are both (very relaxed, and not "twelve-tone") serial procedures applied to pitch and an all-encompasing rhythmic design affecting form, phrasing, tempi, etc. A creative tension between these often results in rather demanding vocal lines. But, though difficult, the lines are in fact "vocal," and I attribute this in part to Leonardo's dark Italian prose, which I find more effusively musical than the lyrics of many poets, and in part to my interest in the vocal lines of American musical theater. I hear this latter influence especially in my use of melodic thirds and sixths. The resulting listening experience is, I think, a rare one: Italian text-setting that is vocal yet unquestionably Expressionistic.
The formal plan of the SCRITTI is, I like think, blissfully complex, with different strata for each section of the ensemble. It may be thought of as in "Treatise Form," since an incipit of the first phrase of each section appears, in proper sequential order, in the Introduction, which thus acts as a kind of "table of contents" of the musical ideas of the piece. This idea was suggested by the quotation of Leonardo's "Treatise on Painting," and by the text appearing at the beginning of the work, "Pensa bene al fine," "Think well about the end." I make no apology for attempting "philosophy in music" in this way; indeed, most of my pieces employ some sort or other of this type of reasoning in thematic use. This is most evident to the ear in my music theater piece, A MIRACLE OF RARE DEVICE.
In the vocal foreground is a prologue, a set of ariosi for solo tenor alternating with madrigals for solo quartet, and an epilogue. But the instrumental background provides a different design of overlapping instrumental ensembles whose changing constitution blurs the edges of the vocal movements. The work is three simultaneous cycles overlapping. Since the lute was Leonardo's favorite instrument, the ensemble had to include a guitar; the guitar needed a complimenting sound and partner, so I added a harp as well.
In the prologue and epilogue Leonardo gives the key to his thinking: logical deduction of detail from careful consideration of an uncreated work's eventual whole. In the rest of the piece he lets us deeper into his soul. The first madrigal, "Di mi se mai," is a setting of a sentence fragment with which Leonardo often ritualistically begins a notebook entry on some subject seldom or never before discussed.
The solo tenor interrupts with his first arioso, "E tirata dalla mia bramosa voglia," which means "And drawn by my ardent desire." Andrew Imbrie, who was fluent in Italian, pointed out to me that this passage is a paraphrase of the first canto of Dante's Divine Comedy. Compared to Dante's, however, Leonardo's is much the more Expressionistic. Some commentators have made much of this particular passage in Leonardo's notebooks, claiming that he had a "cave experience" of some kind, as described in the journal entry, which affected him profoundly, and changed his life, causing him to reflect on it in his notebooks, etc. The fact that this passage appears as "One of the first entries in his journal" is, according to this story, highly significant. I really think this "cave experience" is unlikely. The passage is by no means certainly autobiographical, any more than the scene I have set from the Treatise on Painting is autobiographical. There are in reality very many passages in the Notebooks that are clearly prose pieces; there are fables; there are even jokes. The passage I have about "People of the Sea" was meant to sound portentious and frightening, but it is "only apparently horrible," since it represents only the fear that babies might sometimes feel when they are wrapped in diapers. Yes, the babies might be frightened, but that doesn't mean the whole thing is awful, or that Leonardo's droll seriousness is not capable of a sort of post-Medieval humor. Leonardo's Notebooks begin with the cave story because a similar cave story appears near the beginning of Dante's Divine Comedy. Reading this paraphrase of Dante we should no more conclude of Leonardo that he had a "Ancient Aliens Cave Experience" than we should conclude from the passage in the Treatise on Painting that he was himself truly frightened and awed by the emotions in the faces of the persons he suggested might be painted in such a scene. Like any good Modernist Leonardo heightened, for reasons of expression, the emotion of the scenes he depicted.
This commentary appeared, in a different form, as the program note to the premiere.
Nicolas Slonimsky included the following entry in his Supplement to Music Since 1900:
14 March 1984