1-4 Flights of Passage
Flights of Passage for solo piano provides musical commentary on four poems by Walt Whitman: “I saw in Louisiana a Live-oak Growing,” “Give me the splendid silent sun,” “the Dalliance of the eagles,” and “the mystic trumpeter.” the work was written for and dedicated to the marvelous pianist James Dick. It was Dick who suggested the poems from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as the literary basis for the piece.
The composition is cast in two separate parts, each consisting of two unequal movements inspired by Whitman’s verses. In both parts, the first movement can be viewed as an introduction to and integral facet of the second (and main) movement of the section, joining it without pause.
The two poems that provide the programmatic impetus for the first part (respectively, “I saw in Louisiana a Live-oak Growing” and “Give me the splendid silent sun”) are artful in their reiteration of visual images and in the rhythmic balance and symmetry of their lines. thus, rather than merely reflect the poems’ general moods and often sensual qualities, I sought to parallel musically their overall formal structures, organizing the compositional materials in each movement in ways that would complement Whitman’s cyclical presentation of ideas.
In the first stanza of the poem “Give me the splendid silent sun,” Whitman expresses an initial longing for Nature’s “primal sanities”; but in the second, he rejects those serene delights in favor of the turbulence of war-excited city streets. The structure of Flights’ second movement mirrors this antiphonal contrast between the poem’s stanzas. Because of the poem’s transcendentalist references, it also seemed fitting to use as a sort of “idée fixe” for the movement the beginning phrase of “Thoreau,” the final movement from Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata for piano. Thoreau was, after all, the great man of Nature, one who, in Ives’ own words, “sang of the submission to Nature, the religion of contemplation, and the freedom of simplicity ...”
The opening portion of the second major section is a musical evocation of “the Dalliance of the eagles,” one of Whitman’s most compressed and elemental works. The poem describes what Whitman assumed to be eagles mating in mid-air (actually, what he witnessed was an act called “taloning”). The text itself provides the best description of the music, for this third movement, this “gyrating wheel” of sound unfolding in “tumbling turning clustering loops,” constitutes the most obvious example of “tone-painting” in the set.
The final movement treats the long poem “the mystic trumpeter.” The poem’s theme is music’s inspiration. the first five stanzas summon forth the “immortal phantoms” of past musicians, particularly those from periods of history that are associated with idealized or chivalric love (the “amorous contact” in “Dalliance” here blossoms into something deeper). But in the sixth stanza, a contrary theme is introduced – the heralding of war, with its “deeds of ruthless
brigands, rapine, murder.” In the final canto, however, after enduring “measureless shame and humiliation,” humankind is redeemed, “a reborn race appears,” “war, sorrow, suffering” are gone, and all is joy.
The music of “The Mystic Trumpeter” is a collage of sorts, incorporating quotations (some distorted, some literal) from four existing works: Charles Ives’ short tone poem The Unanswered Question, the sprawling piano piece Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty Meditations on the Child Jesus) by Olivier Messiaen, Music for the Magic Theatre by the late American composer George Rochberg, and Reis Glorios (Glorious King), a song by the medieval troubadour Guiraut de bornelh. Each of these quoted compositions entails distinct parallels, either musical or literary, with Whitman’s poem. Ives’ The Unanswered Question also imagines a kind of mystic trumpeter, for it is a trumpet that repeatedly poses “the perennial Question of existence” in that composition’s programmatic scenario. Rochberg’s work evokes the “magic theater” of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (a novel that includes the line “I saw Moses, whose hair recalled portraits of Walt Whitman”). The duality of human nature (animalistic vs. spiritual) expressed in the final cantos of “the mystic trumpeter” is also chronicled in Steppenwolf. More significantly, the central figure in the “magic theatre,” as in Whitman’s poem, is the presence of music (“music of the immortals”), music that is inherent in all life, nature, and even memory.
Whitman’s invocation of love and joy (in the fifth and eighth stanzas, respectively, of “the mystic trumpeter”) resonates with Messiaen’s vision of divine love in the last of the Vingt Regards. Whitman’s phrases “no other theme but love ... the enclosing theme of all” have a musical complement in the “thème d’amour” (“Love theme”) of Messiaen’s piece, and the utopian vision of a humanity redeemed and joyful that is set forth in the final stanza of the poem finds kindred expression in Messiaen’s “triomphe d’amour et de joie” (“triumph of Love and Joy”). The citations of these fragments from Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus in my own work are particularly appropriate in light of Whitman’s view of himself as the “American Jesus” and the prophet of a new “American religion.”
5-7 Three Phantasy Pieces for viola & percussion (2003, rev. 2005)
Three Phantasy Pieces for Viola and Percussion was commissioned by the Center for New Music at the University of Iowa for Christine Rutledge and Daniel Moore. Each movement draws its inspiration in turn from three well-known compositions for viola. The first piece in the set makes oblique reference to the second movement of the Sonata Op. 120, No. 1 for viola and piano by Johannes Brahms. The next uses as its structural (and motivic) basis the second "Märchenbild" of Robert Schumann and provides a light-hearted foil for the more somber outer movements.
The final piece is a parody of the "Procession of the Pilgrims" from Hector Berlioz's Harold in Italy and is, in essence, a chaconne (a musical form based on the continuous variation of a series of chords). The gradual unfolding and intensification of the chaconne pattern in both the viola and vibraphone is interrupted at the movement's climax with a modified quotation of the "Canto Religioso" from Berlioz's work.
8 Elegy for solo violin (1979)
Elegy was commissioned by Lewis Kaplan, the violinist and director of the Aeolian Chamber Players, and was premiered by Mr. Kaplan in 1979 at the Weill Recital Hall in New York.
The work is simple and straightforward both in form and tonality and requires no elaborate explanation or programme. Although written in memory of a very dear friend, Elegy can also be viewed as an homage to Béla Bartók, whose ghost haunts every page of the score.
9-12 Tableaux Funèbres
Tableaux Funèbres provides musical commentary on four haiku texts of rather dark 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 Tableaux Funèbres seeks not only to reflect the moods suggested by the poetry, but also 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.
The poems from which the piece gains its programmatic impetus are given below (in English translations by Harold G. Henderson), 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 inspire are laid out in a “four-seasons” sequence, from summer to spring.
I. Summer night:
from cloud to cloud the moon
is swift in flight.
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. Grave mound, shake too!
My wailing voice –
the autumn wind.
The pitch materials for this movement 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.”
III. Night; and once again,
while I wait for you, cold wind
turns into rain.
The third movement draws its inspiration from “Der Dopplegänger,” the last of the “Heine Lieder” that comprise the second part of Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Schwanengesang (Swan Song). In Heine’s poem, the narrator stands before the house where his lost love once lived and is horrified when he imagines that he sees a stranger in the moonlight whose face reflects his own pain. Although Schubert’s haunting setting of the poem provides the structural and emotional basis of my movement, the only literal reference to the original song is the appearance of the recurring four-note bass pattern in the piano.
IV. The beginning of spring:
thoughts come – and there is loneliness;
the autumn dusk is here.
The final movement is in two parts, the division corresponding to the colon in the haiku above. Spring is normally a time for happiness and renewal. For me, one of the greatest poetic and musical celebrations of spring is Richard Strauss’ “Frühling,” the first number in his valedictory work, the Four Last Songs. The final cadential chords of the orchestral accompaniment to the Strauss song are adapted here as a sort of motto in the first section of this movement.
By way of transition to the contrasting second part, I make reference to various elements from the opening movement of Tableaux. For the concluding section itself, the juxtaposition of the words “loneliness” and “autumn” brought thoughts again of a passage from Das Lied von der Erde, this time from the second of the six songs, whose individual title is “Der Einsame im Herbst” (“The Lonely One in Autumn”):
O love’s warm sunshine, have you gone forever
And will my burning tears be never dried?
As the climax for this movement (and, indeed, for the entire work), Mahler’s setting of these poignant words erupts suddenly from the texture of my own music. Thus, with the quotation of a fragment from “Der Abschied” in the first movement of Tableaux, Mahler’s music frames mine and brings to full circle the seasonal changes of the haiku.
Tableaux Funèbres was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Louisville in celebration of its 50th Anniversary and is dedicated to the memory of Nelson Keyes. The revised version of the work was premiered in Louisville on April 25, 2004 by Ursula Oppens and the Pacifica String Quartet.
13 Awaking the Winds for chamber orchestra (1993)
In Awaking the Winds (1993), I consciously pursued a very different aesthetic direction from that taken in most of my compositions written before and since. Perhaps a first-time listener would, therefore, find it enlightening - in view of the work's raison d'etre - to learn what I attempted not to do.
My music in recent years has often been highly programmatic, typically drawing its inspiration from literary sources. Despite the rather evocative nature of its title, Awaking the Winds is, on the other hand, decidedly "absolute"; that is, it contains no extramusical associations.
Musical borrowing has also played a significant role in my instrumental compositions for over two decades. The tonal language of those pieces involving quotations has been determined in large measure by the tonality of the borrowed fragments around which the entire work or a single section was built. Thus, my music has tended to be quite eclectic, mixing atonal passages with those based firmly in the major-minor tonal system. Awaking the Winds utilizes no conscious quotations, and the tonality - best, if vaguely, described as "freely chromatic" - is consistent throughout.
The majority of my pieces have been characterized by a delicacy of gesture, a sensitivity to timbral subtleties and an "eastern" approach to the handling of time and space. As a consequence, they have been essentially monophonic and have relied heavily on a large and exotic collection of percussion instruments to initiate and sustain events. By comparison, this anomalous composition is primarily polyphonic in conception and employs only a few mallet percussion instruments that serve merely as extensions of the keyboards.
Finally, recent works have frequently consisted of a series of individual and relatively short movements, each of which was complete in itself. Awaking the Winds, however, is a single-movement composition dominated by several diverse ideas that evolve organically throughout.
Such a radical departure from an aesthetic I have long embraced should by no means be seen as a repudiation of my other efforts...nor, certainly, did it signal a permanent philosophical shift. In writing Awaking the Winds, I sought only to eschew that which was comfortable and familiar and to explore compositional techniques and procedures that, while certainly not innovative, presented new challenges for me in my growth as a composer.
Claude Baker (b. 1948) attained his doctoral degree from the Eastman School of Music, where his principal composition teachers were Samuel Adler and Warren Benson. As a composer, Mr. Baker has received a number of professional honors, including an Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; two Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards; a “Manuel de Falla” Prize (Madrid); the Eastman-Leonard and George Eastman Prizes; BMI-SCA and ASCAP awards; commissions from the Barlow, Fromm and Koussevitzky Music Foundations; a Paul Fromm Residency at the American Academy in Rome; and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bogliasco Foundation and the state arts councils of Indiana, Kentucky and New York. At the beginning of the 1991-92 concert season, he was appointed Composer-in-Residence of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, a position he held for eight years. He is currently Class of 1956 Chancellor’s Professor of Composition in the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, Bloomington.