DUO NEVI "Two Snows"
First Michelangelo Fantasy
for Violin and Contrabass

by Christopher Fulkerson
CF's Composition Desk
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Each of the four Michelangelo Fantasies is inspired by the sonnet below, which Michelangelo wrote, probably to his friend Tommaso de' Cavalieri, in about the Spring of 1535; the poem was found on the back of a letter sent to him. The metaphor is that of the silkworm (the "vil bruto," which can also be translated "vile animal," of the poem), whose cocoon, the medium of its self-transformation, is used as the source of silk, from which beautiful garments for others are made. "The motif of being skinned can be traced back to the myth of Marsyas, flayed for challenging Apollo, and to Saint Bartholomew, whom M portrayed in the Sistine 'Last Judgement' holding his flayed skin, whose face is M's self-portrait. Ideas for the 'Last Judgement,' commissioned in 1534, were taking shape at the time of this poem." This remark is by the translator James M. Saslow, whose translation below is used by permission of the publisher.

Heard together the Michelangelo Fantasies describe a progress from gruff to elegant, and from low to high. The gruffness of the Duo nevi gradually transforms, quite in the manner described in the poem, into the less gruff L'ALTRUI MAN CONTESTA, and then into an articulate elegance, at the end of DEL SUO PEL CONTESTA; the "vile brute" becomes billowing hair. And while the ceiling of the high notes is always generally the same, being the high notes possible on the violin, the bass line of the cycle physically rises: the Duo nevi has available to it the lowest notes of the contrabass, but the next piece, L'altrui man veste, for string trio, has as its lowest possible notes only those of the cello; the last piece employs only violins and violas. So the cycle describes a gradual ascent. There is some iconographical development as well. The silkworm can be heard crawling around as a creeping figure in the bass part of the first piece in the cycle; in the second piece, in the cello part, and later in the violin part. So the being, the silkworm, rises in pitch to ascend to the air as it metamorphoses into a higher being. By the last piece in the cycle, the creep-crawly figure is gone, and the piece is all about flying and maintaining strata. The description of rising is a very important phenomenon in my music, where in several pieces water rises, rather than falls, and the transcendental significance of rising is part of the form and detail of the Buddhist mantra cadenzas in the CELESTIAL SIXTIES cycle. The cycle also can be heard as a progress from Michelangelo's supposedly gruff personality to the sheer beauty of his finished work. The violin figure called the hammerstroke becomes increasingly important in the cycle; by the last piece, it is the basis of the solo violin part. But hammering is not all that a sculptor does; there is finer chiseling, and polishing. Both of these last sculpting acts can be heard in the third piece of the cycle, called Domes, a pun on the Italian word "duomo," whichs means "cathedral," and the top part of a suspended cymbal; DOMES is written for thirty suspended cymbals, played by three players, and is a rhythmic study of the form of the final Michelangelo Fantasy; in that last piece, the sounds of sculpting are also very evident; the polishing is especially easy to hear, depicted as it is by the violas' bowed tremolo; the fine chiseling can be heard in the violins' fingered tremolo. The simplest way to hear the Michelangelo Fantasies is as a progress from the artist's exalted personality, to the artwork's elegant beauty. In this way we can find Michelangelo becoming his artwork, which is indeed one reading of the poem. We all become what we do, and for this reason I urge artists to create what they love; I love excitement and adventure, and sublime developments in the air of optimism, and that is what I think I create. Composers of the world, compose yourselves!

I wish I could say that every piece I write that involves literature was written after profound and careful meditation of the literary works employed, fully aware at all times of the meanings and depths of what I am involved with and what I am doing. Alas, while it certainly is true of some of my pieces, Scritti di Leonardo or Remember the Stars for example, such is not always the case. One day in 1993 I was walking across my room on Nob Hill, carrying a volume of the Poetry of Michelangelo, casually glancing through it as I walked. My eye chanced on the two words "duo nevi," and in that instant I knew I could write a very exciting duo... I flipped the book closed. I then spent about half an hour combing it to find those two words, which I was pleased are an expression meaning something like "harsh weather." Since the piece I had instantantly "auralized" (that is, heard as a sonic "vision;" the aural equivalent of "visualization") was quite exalted and transcendental in tone, the expression seemed apt enough; the context of the "two snows" or "two seasons" of "bad weather," being the period and circumstances of work on a divinely beautiful thing, was perfect for a number of reasons. But I only learned of the meaning of the expression, and of its potential beauty, after I had (instantly) decided to write the piece. It took some months of work to finalize the proof in score of that brief moment of auralization. I am very pleased with the piece. I feel that the form I created, depicted on the right, really gave an emotionally satisfying shape, and so I have used it in three other pieces, also inspired by the same poem.

To arrive at the emotional expression of my "auralizations" I often create line drawings that suggest to me the expressive curve of a piece. From these I create graphed plans, equivalent to an architect's drafted plans. I have long maintained that music is an art which is best pursued from "both sides of the equation:" some of the magic is in the details, but musical feeling, and the real magic, is not in the details, it is in the form. Coordination of detail and form enhances and blends both the effects and the nature of detail and form, so that detail can affect the form, and the form can sieze the moment. But the real work is in the planning, and the realization of the form. The graph to the right is not a dressed up version of one of these, it is the one I actually worked from. The horizontal aspect is the temporal one; the vertical indicates the scale of ten tempos that were used in the piece. In the Duo nevi, it is not difficult to hear that the violin part gradually becomes faster and faster; this is a result of the increasing speed of the stratum used to create the violin line. The numbers on the graph here were the ones used in the Duo nevi; for the other Michelangelo Fantasies, other figures were used.

Duo nevi was written in 1993, and is seven minutes long. It is available in both live performances and computer realizations; for the latter see the CD set MODERNISM FOREVER. The score is 22 pages long, in the composer's fair hand.




D'altrui pietoso e sol di se spietato
nasce un vil bruto, che con pena e doglia
l'altrui man veste e la suo scorza spoglia
e sol per morte si puo dir ben nato
Cosi volesse al mie signor mie fato
vestir suo viva di mie morta spoglia,
che, come serpe al sasso si discolglia,
pur per morte potria cangiar mie stato.
O fussi sol la mie l'irsuta pelle
che, del suo pel contesta, fa tal gonna
che con ventura stringe si bel seno,
ch'i l'are pure il giorno; o le pianelle
che fanno a quel di lor basa e colonna,
ch'i pur ne porterei duo nevi almeno.

Merciful to others and merciless only to itself,
a lowly creature's born, who with pain and sorrow
clothes another's hand and strips off its own skin,
and only through death might be called truly born.
I wish it were my own fate thus to clothe
my lord's living body with my dead hide,
so that, as a snake sheds its skin on a rock,
likewise through death could I change my condition.
Oh, if only the furry pelt were mine
which, with its billowing hair, makes such a robe
that has the luck to bind so fair a breast,
so I'd have him in the daytime; or the slippers
that make themselves a base and support for him,
so I might carry him for at least two snows.