SHADOWS: FOUR DIRGE-NOCTURNES (1990)
The Indiana University Festival Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin, Conductor
3. and 4. played without pause [8:22]
Shadows provides non-verbal commentary on four haiku texts of rather macabre imagery. A haiku is a very short, seventeen-syllable form of Japanese verse that is intended to evoke a wealth of thoughts and emotions. Because of its brevity, the haiku must depend for its effect on the power of suggestion and a deliberate elusiveness: the reader must "fill in" the outlines that have been drawn.
The music of Shadows seeks not only to reflect the moods suggested by the poetry, but to amplify the implied meanings present in each haiku...and even to create additional associations. This is accomplished in part by the allusion to and quotation of passages from well-known vocal works that echo the spirit and content of the haiku selected. Formally, there is an attempt to parallel the classic structure of the haiku, transferring the special characteristics of the written art to sound. For example, the numbers five and seven, corresponding to the alternation of five and seven syllables in the haiku, are used as the numerical basis of the work. Further, motives that serve the musical function of kigo, or "season words," are developed and expanded. These words or expressions denote the time of year, and their inclusion in the haiku is an almost inviolable rule. Each movement also exhibits an essentially binary construction, reflecting the "principle of internal comparison" that is so frequently employed in haiku writing. This technique creates a division of the poem into two or more parts that are to be equated or compared, and it should always be looked for.
The poems from which the piece gains its programmatic impetus are given below in English translations (the first three translated by Harold G. Henderson, the last by Peter Beilenson), each followed by a brief description of the respective movement. Since each of the four haiku refers to a different time of the year, the movements they inspired are laid out in a "four-seasons" sequence, from spring to winter.
I. Cool the moonlight:
shadow of a tombstone,
shadow of a pine.
Upon first encountering this haiku, I thought immediately of the text of "Der Abschied," the final movement of Gustav Mahler's symphonic song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde, and in particular of the passage that reads, in translation:
O see, like some tall ship of silver sails,
The moon upon her course, through heaven's blue sea.
I feel the stirring of some soft south-wind
Behind the darkling pine-wood.
Herein is described the death of the day, when the sun sets and the world falls asleep. Midway through my first movement, after disjointed references to other elements in Mahler's song, there appears an altered quotation of the music that underscores this text. Now, however, Mahler's orchestral fabric is reduced to a string quartet, and the lines emerge as if recalled in distant memory.
II. A graveyard: low
the grave mounds lie, and rank
the grasses grow.
This movement is an oblique parody of the "Dirge" from Benjamin Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Britten's song, based on an anonymous 15th-century text, utilizes an ostinato in the voice combined with a fugue for the strings and (ultimately) horn. In lieu of a single melodic ostinato, my music consists of three simultaneous and overlapping rhythmic ostinati, or taleae. This texture is punctuated intermittently with brief points of canonic imitation that are independent of the repeated rhythmic structure. The instrumentation of the movement also is a mirror of Britten's work and calls for two horns, low strings and percussion.
III. Grave mound, shake too!
My wailing voice -
the autumn wind.
The pitch materials for this movement (and indeed, for the entire composition) are derived almost exclusively from permutations of the five-note row that serves as the basis of Igor Stravinsky's In Memoriam Dylan Thomas for tenor, string quartet and four trombones. Stravinsky selected as text for the "Song" (the principal section of his work) the poem Dylan Thomas composed in memory of his father, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." In my own movement, there are two modified quotations of the "Song's" brief refrain, that portion of Stravinsky's music written to the words, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." The movement is scored for the full orchestra and is the dramatic and structural climax of the complete piece.
IV. The Mourning Father
Deep under ashes...
Burning charcoal chilled now by
his hissing tears.
The final section is both a "coda" to the third movement (confirming its ultimate tonality of "D") and the orchestrational "inverse" of the second. The instrumentation here calls for two flutes, "high" strings and percussion, with the strings, rather than the percussion, now dominating. As befits the title given the haiku by its translator, the movement draws its material from the last song of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder. Mahler's composition is a setting for voice and orchestra of five poems by Friedrich Rückert, written after the death of the poet's own children. Although typically Mahlerian gestures are employed in the construction of the lines within my music, the only literal quotation occurs at the conclusion of the movement, where the final measures of the Mahler cycle are echoed in the violins. Thus, with the quotation of a fragment from "Der Abschied" in the first movement, Mahler's music frames my own and brings to full circle the seasonal changes of the haiku.