A Letter from the Afterlife
Dinuk Wijeratne conducts tonight a string orchestra arrangement of his A Letter from the Afterlife, which was originally composed in 2014 for the Afiara Quartet as the first of Two Pop Songs on Antique Poems. As he’s explained,
I found the concept of this unique project to be irresistible: ‘Pop’-influenced music for a Classical string quartet, almost as irresistible as the musicians involved. The ‘Afiaras’ (as I like to call them) are astonishingly equidistant from tradition and innovation. And so, I sought to create for them my own kind of ‘collision of old and new’, where the beauty and meaning of vintage poems might inspire the kind of loops, grooves, and catchy tunes heard in Pop.
A Letter from the Afterlife is based on a poem from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1048–1131). Here’s the English translation by Edward Fitzgerald (1809–1883):
I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell.
Wijeratne notes that “the melody is, in fact, a setting of the poem’s text with the words stripped away.” It is first introduced by a solo viola, against a pulsating rhythmic loop played by a solo violin. Gradually, sonority and intensity build with each iteration of the melody, now played by groups of instruments, with the driving rhythms feeling more insistent. After reaching a brief peak, the tension dissipates, and the process begins again. This time, it rises to a dramatic climax on the first of two musical quotes from Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet—an aggressive theme announced by the cellos. First violins follow with the second quotation—a delicate, questioning phrase. According to the composer, “They, ironically, struck me as being Pop-like and so I allowed them to emerge as though improvised; then to be improvised upon.” Later, the piece culminates on a full orchestral unison statement of the first quote, then drives relentlessly to the end.
Concertino for Trombone
I. Allegro maestoso
II. Andante: Marcia funebre
III. Allegro maestoso
German composer Ferdinand David’s Trombone Concertino is one of the earliest works for solo trombone and orchestra. He wrote it in 1837 for Carl Traugott Queisser (1800–1846). At the time, David, a virtuoso violinist, was concertmaster and Queisser was principal violist in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which was then conducted by Felix Mendelssohn. Queisser was also a trombone virtuoso, renowned throughout Europe—the composer Robert Schumann described him as “God of the trombone”. As a soloist with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Queisser was featured over two dozen times, including in premieres of new works, such as this Concertino in a “large concert” on December 14, 1837. The work was well received and Queisser went on to perform it in numerous concerts in and outside Leipzig. Later in the 19th century, with Leipzig established as a centre of trombone playing, the Concertino became an important part of the instrument’s repertoire. It continues to be one of the most frequently played trombone compositions worldwide and is David’s best-known work.
The Concertino is appealing and well-crafted, combining the structural and textural clarity of 18th century (“Classical”) music, with 19th century (“Romantic”) rhythmic drive, drama, harmony, and lyricism. For the soloist, it demands not only technical dexterity but also sensitive musicianship to portray a wide variety of expressive styles—from bold, sonorous statements, to dazzling runs, to gentle, song-like melodies.
The piece unfolds in three movements without breaks. Warm phrases intoned by the woodwinds open the first movement, after which there’s a fiery full-orchestra outburst. The solo trombone responds with a grand first theme that shows off the full range of the instrument. After a transition of martial character, a sweet and tender second theme is introduced by violins and violas, followed by the trombone’s take. The soloist then returns to lively motifs to round off the section. A stormy orchestral episode ensues; when the trombone enters again, it’s in short dramatic bursts, like an opera recitative, which leads into an extended solo cadenza.
After the trombone’s soliloquy, the funeral march begins. The main theme is a solemn lament, which, in dialogue with the strings, reaches an anguished peak. There’s then a poignant reminiscence, swelling with heart-warming fondness, before descending back into the grief of the march’s procession. Out of these depths, against an agitated backdrop, violins and upper woodwinds trade off surging, ascending motifs, and we emerge into the bright joy of the finale. Here, the first movement’s themes are recalled in sequence, then briefly developed. Together, trombone and orchestra close the Concertino with a triumphant finish.
Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (Jonelle Sills, soprano)
Commissioned by the American soprano Eleanor Steber, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a “lyric rhapsody” by Samuel Barber. Steber premiered the work in 1949, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitsky. The text is from an autobiographical prose poem by James Agee (1909–1955) and is a nostalgic reflection on a childhood summer in Knoxville, the year before his father’s death. Barber closely identified with the poem, who noted that it “particularly struck me because the summer evening he describes in his native southern town reminded me so much of similar evenings, when I was a child at home.” Moreover, it resonated with his experience of the long illness and subsequent death in August 1947 of his own father, to whom he dedicated this work.
Barber used a third of Agee’s original poem, specifically choosing the closing paragraphs, which “I put it into lines to make the rhythmic pattern clear.” Musically, as musicologist Benedict Taylor has aptly described, the “nostalgia and wistful tone of Agee’s poem is translated into Barber’s music by several markers for childhood, past time, and musical nostalgia.” These elements include a recurring lullaby refrain and a simple, folk song–like vocal line. The diverse timbres of the orchestra’s instruments vividly evoke the various sights and sounds described in the poem. To guide listening, the text is provided in full below with brief commentary on the music.
The introduction, with the sounds of the English horn, clarinet, bassoon, and harp create a pastoral setting, conjuring up a simpler time and place. The voice enters, with the words on the primary lullaby theme, and gentle, rocking accompaniment.
It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto: a quiet auto: people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard, and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber.
An urgent episode disrupts the reverie with the noise and bustle of daily urban life, here represented by the sounds of a streetcar, emulated by staccato woodwinds and plucked strings, among other effects.
A streetcar raising into iron moan; stopping; belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts; the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter; fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten.
Another brief episode follows, that, with muted strings, has a wistful, magical quality, as the voice tenderly recalls this memory:
Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose.
Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes…
It then sinks back into the lullaby refrain.
Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces.
The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.
The third episode introduces a new melodic motif, and the music becomes somewhat unsettled and intensifies—through wide leaps in the violins and the infusion of more chromatic harmonies—as the voice contemplates “their people” around them and the ephemerality of life.
On the rough wet grass of the backyard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. … They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they all seem like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, … with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.
The pastoral music from the introduction returns; the voice intones an impassioned prayer, to which the orchestra responds with an intense climax.
May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.
For one last time, the lullaby returns. On the final words, which, in Barber’s view, “expresses a child’s feeling of loneliness, wonder, and a lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep,” the voice soars to ethereal heights above the orchestra.
After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
On the lullaby’s rocking motif, the orchestra draws the rhapsody to a reflective close.
Knoxville: Summer of 1915 Libretto (PDF 188.91 KB)
Holberg Suite, Op. 40
I. Praeludium: Allegro vivace
II. Sarabande: Andante
III. Gavotte: Allegretto
IV. Air: Andante religioso
V. Rigaudon: Allegro con brio
In 1884, at the peak of his career as a musician and composer, Edvard Grieg was commissioned to write a work in celebration of the bicentenary of the Norwegian-Danish writer and playwright Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754). He composed the Holberg Cantata for male voices for the occasion but as he was completing it, he also wrote a set of piano pieces, which he titled “From Holberg’s Time: Suite in the olden style”. The following year, he arranged this suite for string orchestra—the form in which it’s best known today.
Grieg modelled the Holberg Suite on the instrumental form that was popularized during the Baroque period, the one in which Holberg lived. It consists of a series of stylized dances, that is, music that’s meant to be listened to rather than danced to, but retains the distinguishing characteristics (tempo, meter, rhythms) of these dance types. The movements are unified by being all in the same tonality; G, in the case of this work (and for the most part G major, except for excursions into G minor for the Air and the Rigaudon). In general, Grieg sought to evoke this older style in his Holberg Suite, rather than imitate it.
The opening Praeludium features a vigorous galloping rhythm with forceful accents and dramatic crescendos. Overtop, violins play a delicate melody that progresses down by step. The mood shifts to stormy with thrilling cascading passages, then suddenly quiet, with a haunting phrase. Later, the initial music is reprised with some variation, and ends with a grand flourish.
The Sarabande is a slow dance in triple metre with its characteristic emphasis on the second beat. This one has some quirky touches, such as the plucked basses joining in halfway through the first part. In the second half, solo cello takes the poignant phrase from the violins, after which two other cellos join to create a close-knit trio. The remaining strings enter and rise to a warm peak, then subside at the close.
Grieg takes inspiration from the Gavotte’s signature double upbeat to create an uplifting theme made of ascending motifs, with accents highlighting the dance rhythm. The Gavotte bookends a central Musette, with cellos intoning a drone and the upper strings playing circular patterns above, evoking the Baroque-era French bagpipe from which the musical style takes its name.
The Air is a moving song without words—set in G minor, it has an affecting melancholy. Violins introduce the lyrical melody with its expressive embellishments, after which it’s taken up by the cellos and double basses. In the second half, the violins enter into a duet with solo cello, after which they reach an emotional climax. It recedes, only to build to intensity once more before dissipating quickly at the end.
The final movement is a Rigaudon, a lively French dance. Here, the tune is given to solo violin and viola who play rapid, energetic figures, against a quietly plucked backdrop. By complete contrast, the gentle middle section, in the minor mode, employs the warmth of the full ensemble. The Rigaudon returns to close the Suite with an exuberant finish.
Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley