THE SWEEP OF THEIR LYRE
Part One of ECHOES OF OUR BARDS
Sextet for Piano, Harp, Electric Guitar, Chimes, Vibraphone, and Marimba (doubling Xylophone)
|by Christopher Fulkerson|
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See Below for Parts.
I have a passion for the spoken word, and I marvel at, and revel in, the bardic state. Naturally I usually do this quite sober, but drinking wine in a breeze on a hot day and reading Homer about Odysseus drinking wine in a breeze on a hot day is just about as complete an exaltation of the verisimilitude between life and art as I know. Exploring the Shamanic element of the creative mind is one of my oldest preoccupations, and I have had in mind a work for chamber orchestra on this expressive theme since the late 1970s. (No, this is not that piece. This is something else.)
When, in one of my vast listening projects, I listened to the complete works of Beethoven, I was amazed at the huge legacy of so-called "Folksongs" he had left. There are hundreds of the most excellent pieces for solo voice or vocal ensembles, accompanied not by piano solo, but by piano trio, an ensemble Beethoven used with considerable imagination. And the quality of the literature he used is often really very good, and, amazingly, it's in English. (His publisher selected the texts for him.) Hearing Beethoven in English was one of the greatest revelations of my life to date. One of the most amazing compositions in his catalogue is the setting of "The Return to Ulster" by Sir Walter Scott. Like many of these "folksongs," it is in fact a wholly original vocal work far in advance of its time, technically comparable to the first of the Razumovsky quartets. I was quite taken by this song and by the marvelous, magical poem Scott wrote - not about Scotland this time, but about Ireland. Scott's insight into music and feeling and indeed magic impressed me utterly. In one short poem he convinced me that he is one of the most insightful bards of all time. The truth of the relation between images of water and of magic and art were right in step with the insights I was working with on MOYS ICOS at the time I heard Beethoven's setting of his poem. I felt as though I had found the most genuine door into a magical world I had yet found on my own. (When I mentioned the Beethoven folksongs to the President of the local Wagner Society, he said "Why don't we know about this music!") In the second verse, the storyteller sings of his passionate youth:
"I had heard of our bards, and my soul was on fire
I love to read out loud, whether poetry, prose, or drama. I have read whole long novels, whole books of poetry, about half of Shakespeare, all of Homer, and all of the Bible (in English and the original languages) out loud. Yes, I love to hear the sound of my own voice - but the key is, that when I read great literature out loud, it is speaking words and sounds I can confidently know are really great, that I really love, and that sound fantastic. There are fewer greater pleasures I know than to drink good wine and read Homer out loud in Greek, which I can do for hours at a time. So Scott's words resonated deeply for me. And yes, I often feel my soul on fire with the words of the bards. I memorized the poem and recite it, or sing Beethoven's setting of it, quite often. It has become a text sacred to me. No matter that I live in a beastly ignorant world, and go for weeks at a time without a really worthy conversation (months actually). I am a one-man outpost of civilization, and my soul is on fire at the words of the bards. They are yet another treasure of civilisation that can never be taken from me.
The ECHOES OF OUR BARDS, of which this piece is Part One, is meant to bring forward the sounds of the two images "The rush of their verse, and the sweep of their lyre." In THE SWEEP OF THEIR LYRE, the sound of simple quick lyre-like arpeggiation, of fulsome chords, with characteristic trailing fioriture, is the entire basis of the composition. The ensemble was chosen to suggest to the golden tones of days of yore, its harps and harp-like instruments such as the piano, generously augmented by the resilient sounds of bells and vibraphone; the electric guitar is used in a manner meant to be compatible with this type of golden metallic tone. Like the other pieces in the ECHOES cycle, these pieces also explore different versions of the phenomenon of echo; this will include the overall forms of the pieces themselves, which will in their entirety be variants of one another, a formal technique I have also explored in my Michelangelo Fantasies and other pieces.
This septet was written in a sustained burst in ten days, in the kind of preoccupied frame of mind I think Schoenberg was talking about when he spoke of "the ecstacy of composition," I certainly was delighted to be writing it and completed the work on September 15, 2009, from a plan I had worked on for a week or so. This plan was developed from a design I had made some years earlier, I'm not sure when, but probably sometime in the 1990s. It is seven and a half minutes long.
Of course Part Two of ECHOES OF OUR BARDS is THE RUSH OF THEIR VERSE. This piece includes the instruments of SWEEP and adds five more, to a total of eleven, and is 12 1/2 minutes long.