For String Orchestra

by Christopher Fulkerson

CF's Composition Desk

CF In his studio about the time of work on
THE LANTERN IN THE CRYPT (piano version),
(shown on the stand and desk),

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THE LANTERN IN THE CRYPT is by genre the type of piece called a "tombeau" or "tomb." It was written as a piano piece on the afternoon of September 3, 1985, while I was living at Fourth Avenue and Hugo Street in San Francisco. Once I had completed the piece I had the feeling it was like a gift that had been bestowed on me. Later, on August 19, 1989, while staying at Serge Koussevitsky's mansion Serenak as a Composer Fellow at Tanglewood, I made an arrangement for double string orchestra.

Artists do well to carefully consider the titles they choose - titles function as names. From the beginning I had the impression that the piece sounds like the warm, human side of some kind of tragic scene, or interior emotional state, but one from which there is a dispassionate distance. The sense of typical Romantic yearning, and of warmth in darkness, brought to my mind the crypt scene from Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET. But neither the lovers in their folly nor any of the other characters were sufficiently to my liking. I felt that the music is not about them, but it is distinctly about the kind of space they are in. Then I began to think more about the properties involved. Obviously this piece isn't about poisons or knives. I drew a clue from the torches which light the scene. The character Balthazar enters with a torch, to which the character Paris objects, having already told his page boy to put his torch out. Romeo asks for Balthazar's torch, saying "Give me the light" to his still silent servant. Presumably Romeo mounts the torch.

But this is all preliminary to a more profound image of a light source. Once Romeo reluctantly kills Paris, he opens the grave to put his body in it, and, seeing Juliet, whom he mistakes for dead, calls the grave a "lantern."

Now, in Elizabethan English, a "torch" is a hand-held flame, while a "lantern" is an entire lighthouse, such as lights a coast for ships at sea. Romeo calls the grave of Juliet and Paris, which he will soon join, a lighthouse. He develops the metaphor, saying that merriment such as his on the point of death is called "A lightning before death." By taking his own life he hopes to "shake inauspicious stars," and says he makes the vault a "presence full of light."

Romeo may be in a transcendant state, but his is of course the discourse of a madman. I don't really like Romeo, nor Juliet. The Prince blames himself for "winking at discords;" for writing this accessible piece, I am guilty of winking at triads. But the lighthouse shines on the good, the evil... and the foolish... alike. At the moment he died Goethe, already long enlightened, called for "Mehr Licht." Romeo pays for his poison. But the light is a gift.


The world premiere performance of THE LANTERN IN THE CRYPT was given by William Carslake and the London Charity Orchestra on December 13, 2011 at the 83rd annual Christmas fundraiser for the London Taxidrivers' Fund for Underprivileged Children, at St. John's Smith Square, London, England. The Patron for the event was Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.


Copyright 2011 by Christopher Fulkerson

First posted September 22, 2011. Updated November 10, 2015.