for chamber orchestra, soprano, vocal quartet (2011) – 30 minutes
Orchestration: 1111 1100 2perc Pno Hp strings; soprano; SATB
Commissioned by: Metropolis Ensemble with funds provided by NYSCA, and written while in residence at Copland House, Cortlandt Manor, New York, as a recipient of the Aaron Copland Award
World Premiere: 15 September, 2011, Metropolis Ensemble, Andrew Cyr, Music Director, with Jolle Greenleaf, soprano, and TENET Vocal Ensemble
Compose Thyself is built around the little that remains of J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 210a, “O angenehme Melodei.” Written and performed in Leipzig in 1729, in honor of the occasion of a visit to Leipzig by the Duke Christian of Sachsen-Weißenfels, the ten-movement cantata was subsequently lost, with only the soprano soloist’s part being rediscovered later. The piece is never performed, due to its fragmentary state, so it’s known only to scholars and specialists. I aimed, in Compose Thyself, to give the music a new presence by building a work of my own around the fully intact line of Bach, using it as a cantus firmus backbone to my own music which resonates with Bach’s in a dynamic and evolving relationship.
Bach was a frequent recycler of his own music, in particular with his more than 250 cantatas, crafting new uses all the time, from concerto to overture, secular to devotional. With my new work drawing on Bach’s cantata for both its skeleton and its musical material, the title I chose also comes from within the cantata’s text. In Compose Thyself, I let Bach’s music tell me what to do with it to make it new.
I have a tendency to quote some of my most beloved music when the spirit comes over me. It’s a compulsion really. Certain pieces are so much a part of me that my music often feels like it needs to coexist quite directly with them. And in this case, already building the entire piece around the single remaining line of one of Bach’s lost cantatas, I began to feel like it invited me to live not just with the spirit of Bach, but with the ghosts of some of my other great musical heroes.
The fact that I was working on the piece while in residency at Copland House leaves not much wonder about the Appalachian Spring quotes that pop up. But in fact, I hadn’t originally intended to quote beyond the Bach itself in the piece. It was going to be just me and Bach. It wasn’t until I got deeper into my analysis of Bach’s line that things began to change. I studied that one existing line on its own terms, and tried to detach myself from any assumptions about what Bach might have been doing with the other lines at the time. Looking just at that one line, I found the powerful and prevalent contrapuntal motive of a 4-note downward scale. It was everywhere in Bach’s work. Wandering Copland’s lovely property all summer singing that contrapuntal motive, and the Bach arias whose text was about the ennobling and uplifting power of music–and, call it corny, but being there with my pregnant wife who was napping quietly while I composed–it didn’t take long before I noticed myself also singing the melody from Appalachian Spring. And I realized it was because not only do the two pieces share the sublime key of A major, but also the transcendent melody from Appalachian Spring is based on the exact same contrapuntal motive of a 4-note downward scale. A lightbulb went off all of a sudden that there was all this kinship, and, creatively and emotionally, I was right there with it, and it felt like Copland’s ghost needed to be a part of the piece I would eventually title COMPOSE THYSELF.
This kind of thing happened in a number of other ways in the piece, where musical decisions seemed to kind of make themselves very obvious to me, and often evoking the music of great composers (Copland, Stravinsky, Sibelius, and more I’m sure) and it was for this reason that one phrase in the translation I was using of Bach’s original text (translated by Z. Philip Ambrose, and used with kind permission) stuck out to me: “Compose Thyself.” In the Bach, its meaning was “Be at peace.” And for me, it had that meaning–“Be at peace with the piece”–but it went beyond that to mean “Be at peace with the piece piecing itself together, being what it will be, and, in a way, composing itself.”
So there is this kind of resignation to joyfulness in the piece, in contrast to most of my other larger works that have had a darker, tragic tone. There was really no way for me to find irony, bitterness, darkness, or ambiguity in these arias of Bach, in their text, in the situation in my life that I found myself while working on the piece. It was time to be unabashedly joyous and peaceful. And my ghosts were there for this.
There’s actually something more to the story of my deciding that Copland was finding his way into the piece, and it’s a little supernatural. One night during my stay in Copland House, I had what I imagine many of the composers who have stayed there have had: a very powerful feeling that Copland had just walked into the room. It was just after dusk, dark, and almost completely silent in the solitary house in the woods. I was alone, and suddenly the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, goosebumps, and I stopped breathing. It might have been a minute or two that I didn’t move a muscle, barely breathed. And then it slowly receded. I’m not really a big supernatural person, and it may be a bit ridiculous, but it was both incredibly eerie and incredibly emotional for me to imagine Copland’s ghost popping back home to say hello. Once I’d recovered, I happily took it as a sign that it was ok to allow a little quote of Copland. I could be wrong; it could been a “how DARE you!” visit from Copland’s ghost, but maybe I’ll find out some day in the great beyond.
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