Concerto (After Coleridge) For String Orchestra with Percussion

by Christopher Fulkerson

Plan of The Caverns



This is a key work in the Festival. It is eleven minutes long and was completed in 1988, after the cycle of spiritual concertos consisting of THE CHILDERMASS and SAINT PEREGRINE'S CONCERTO was completed, and just after the first of the Purgatory Sonatas, OH OMBRE, VANE, was written. It's form, consisting of five ideas in a simple polyrhythm of 11:10:9:8:7, is at the right. This form allowed for the idea at the opening to return at the end, providing a kind of conventional shape with a conclusion that suggests it is a recapitulation of the beginning.

One of the ideas in this piece consists of a series of group cadenzas for the different sections of the string orchestra, proceeding from the lowest to the highest, thus describing a rise in pitch and texture. The final section ends with this cadenza figure played by solo strings, simultaneoulsy with the idea that opened the piece. The stratum that employs this idea is the one that divides the work into eight parts; first the basses play the figure in couterpoint, then the cellos, then the violas, and last the violins. Of course, as with all of the ideas, there are usually one or more other things going on.

With a few of my pieces, I have had a harder time giving them titles than I have had in composing them. For a long time this piece had different titles that I wasn't satisifed with, taken from Lewis or Dante. Then after writing A MIRACLE OF RARE DEVICE and its constituent piece KUBLA KHAN, I realized there was an image in the Coleridge poem that I had used before and which seemed to give a metaphor that suits the rising texture of the cadenza component of this piece: the image of water rising, gushing up from the ground. I had already worked with this idea in ECHOES OF HART CRANE and have long been intrigued with the conceptual similarity between music, which seems to gush up from nowhere, and rising water. I had heard of the African expression that when water flows uphill, someone is apologizing; this also gave me food for thought, or perhaps I mean "water for thought." I don't plan to do this kind of "apologizing," the sort of thing that causes the Nile to flood, which I think the explorer John Speke realized, though he had no cause to make the apology; only, I think, wanted to prove in the only way he could what it was, and one of the ways our world can be controlled.

But to return to matters I more certainly know something about, after my setting of Kubla Khan had percolated into my mind and the Festival, I went back for the nth time to this group concerto, unsatisfied as usual with its title, thinking that the capaciousness of the phrase about the place in which the sacred river Alph is located might correspond well with the grand feeling I was trying to express in this piece. I doubted that the title would finally be correct. But when I played the harmonies on the keyboard after not having heard them for some time, I was very pleased with the "stone-like" character they have, and there is of course the aspect of the rising idea that perfectly suits the image of water moving upwards.

The passage of the Coleridge that I think this piece expresses very is:

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick parts were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced;
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

I hear in this piece the vast measureless caverns, the water seething and rising, the various fragments of stone, including "dancing rocks," indeed everything here, except perhaps the prophecies of war.

My preoccupation with music as sound that signifies a form of liquid thought also appears in the orchestral piece MOYS ICOS, which takes its title from an expression thought to derive from the ancient Egyptian term "Water Science."

THE CAVERNS OF THE SACRED RIVER is dedicated to my friend, patron, and chorister, the late physicist Robert Howerton, who called physics "the most fun you can have without laughing." Bob was pleased with the dedication.

The score is 78 pages in the composer's fair hand. Hard copy of the Study Score is $25. A larger Conductor's Score is $50.


Posted December 10, 2009