On Wings of Song
for voice and piano (2004)
29 May 2004
Hila Plitmann, soprano; David Del Tredici, piano
Merkin Concert Hall, NYC
David Brunetti, Carla Drysdale, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Henry Francis Lyte, Edward Field
1. I Can Change
2. New Year's Eve
3. Song of Loss and Pain: What Lips My Lips Have Kissed
4. Song of Faith of Hope: Abide With Me
5. A Visitation
What lifts us up, energizes us — what gives us wings — is the theme of this 35-minute sequence of five songs for soprano and piano, which are played without pause.
The first poem, David Brunetti's I Can Change
, celebrates the tantalizing possibility of personal change, as glimpsed in an inspired by the surrounding world. Brunetti's vivid, far-flung images are held together by a rigid structure. Four of the five verses begin with the word "if" (e.g.
, if that worm ... can turn into something exquisite ..."), then conclude with the affirmation, "I can change." The music beneath these verses is fast and breathless, offering the composer the challenge of differentiating the two portions of each verse while maintaining forward motion. New Year's Eve
was written by Carla Drysdale as an appreciation for my piano performance, in drag, at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, New Year's Eve 1998. At breakfast on New Year's Day, Carla presented me with her newly-minted poem and I delightedly set it to music. What lifted her, moved her, was not so mnunch my piano-playing or the celebratory night, but rather the audacious dress (and accessories) in which I flew, as it were, across the keyboard. The song is fast and fiery, with an overdeveloped piano part reminiscent of my New Year's Eve exertions.
The third and fourth songs are a contrasting pair, as their respective subtitles underscore: The third song, What Lips My Lips Have Kissed
, by Edna St. Vincent Millay, is subtitled Song of Loss and Pain
, and sounterposed to it is a Song of Faith and Hope
— my subtitle for Abide With Me
, which is the fourth song. What Lips
is the still-point of the cycle — a wingless place where regret and hopelessness banish the possibility of uplifting flight of any kind. The music, in E-flat minor, is static, sluggish and chromatic. Only near the end does an ecstatic passage in the piano touch upon the major mode and suggest a momentary lifting of the gloom. By way of fulfillment, Abide With Me
, an E-flat major setting of Henry Lyte's familiar hymn-text, flies us to a brighter world, full of infinite possibility. During a final verse, the famous hymn-tune associated with the Lyte text is added as counterpoint to the piano part, around which the soprano weaves a graceful melisma in alt
The climactic final song, A Visitation
, by Edward Field, is the longest and most epic. Wings, no longer mere metaphorical allusion, are actually made flesh (or perhaps feather) in this narrative poem — the tale of an angel who crashes to earth and startles, then deeply touches, the two earthling witnesses. The music begins dramatically, even violently ("The man fell out of the sky"). Then, as the angel awakens and begins to speak, the music turns unearthly and mysterious, as if from another planet. Each narrative event of the poem is pictured vividly in the music — the angel speaks the word "brother" — his limbs miraculously heal — a ship descends to take him away, while the earthlings fall into a trance. Towards the end there is an extended, neo-romantically rish, epilogue: "Then we awoke, looking at each other with wonder." At the very end, a new melody suddenly appears and makes manifest, in its Mendelssohnian way, the full significance of the title On Wings of Song
. On Wings of Song
was commissioned by the Riverside Opera Ensemble in honor of their 20th Anniversary.
- David Del Tredici
Deceptively Tame Songs Surprise With a Radical Twist
The composer David Del Tredici has gained notoriety and even faced censorship for the unabashedly gay content of the texts in several of his recent vocal works, which says much about the silly timidity of the concert music scene these days.
At a time when sexually explicit dramas on HBO could not be more popular and the Fab Five from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" have become cultural heroes, Mr. Del Tredici, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, has yet to find presenters willing to perform a recent work he calls "My Favorite Penis Poems."
So there was great anticipation among the large audience at Merkin Concert Hall on Saturday night over the premiere of "On Wings of Song," his ambitious and fiendishly difficult song cycle for soprano and piano lasting nearly 40 minutes. COmmssioned by the Riverside Opera Ensemble, it was the major offering on a program of songs celebrating the 20th anniversary of this New York organization, dedicated to developing and presenting musical theatre pieces and experimental opera.
Though the texts Mr. Del Tredici chose seemed tame on the surface, the music settings proved that there are other ways to be radical. His self-styled Neo-Romantic idiom can be exasperating. For all the voluptuous colorings and Schumannesque energy of the music, I want him to work harder to put better use to his acute ear for harmony and formidable compositional technique.
In "On Wings of Song," a setting of five connected songs, he does. Though the demanding music tested the slender soprano voice of Hila Plitmann, a Sarah Jessica Parker look-alike, and pushed Mr. Del Tredici's considerable piano technique to its limits, they utterly conveyed the work's mix of homage, irony, daring and vision in teir compelling and justly cheered performance.
The first song, a setting of "I Can Change" by David Brunetti, is an exuberant testimony by someone who sees possibilities of spiritual transformation everywhere, from trees to tadpoles. Mr. Del Tredici conveys the frenzy of the text in shimmering lyrical effusions for the soprano and spiraling, breathless figurations for the piano that recall Richard Strauss. But there is an obsessive cast to the fractured evocations that makes the music sound unhinged and modern, as when a four-note melodic motif is repeated over and over in different registers of the keyboard.
The second song, "New Year's Eve," is the poet Carla Drysdale's witty yet tender recollection of a piano performance that Mr. Del Tredici gave in Virginia, dressed in drag. It couches the poetic phrases in the vocal lines with demonic Lisztian fervor in the piano, with the keyboard-spanning passagework and far-flung harmonies.
The quizzical setting of Edna St. Vincent-Millay's "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" compels you to read ambiguity into her musings over whose "arms have lain/Under my head till morning." The hymnal harmonies of "Abide With Me," to a text by Henry Francis Lyte, are ingeniously muddied with pungently dissonant extra notes. Edward Field's "Visitation," which depicts the vision of an angel falling to earth, again prods Mr. Del Tredici to frantic outbursts. The song is like some modern-day Schubert's "Erlkönig."
-Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 31 May 2004
The Ever-Soaring Del Tredici
As he prepares for the New York debut of his 2004 song cycle "On Wings of Song," David Del Tredici rejoices in the recent release of two new recordings of hismusic.
Until now this renowned gay composer hasn't seen a recording of his music released since 2001's "Secret Music" issue on CRI label. Del Tredici is thus delighted at the unexpected release of his 1972 "Vintage Alice" from Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Paired with earlier songs to poetry by James Joyce, the music appears as part of Deutsche Grammophon's prestigious 20/21 series.
Recorded between 1993 and 1997, these performances finally see the light of day thanks to conductor Oliver Knussen, who exercised an option on his Deutsche Grammophon contract to share Del Tredici's music with a wider audience. Knussen conducts soprano Lucy Shelton, a high-flying modern music specialist who was dating Knussen at the time. The Asko Ensemble and the pianist Del Tredici himself also perform on the disc.
"Vintage Alice" is one of the 67-year-old composer's many Alice settings. V won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for "In Memory of a Summer Day," an Alice work extracted from his brilliant longer work, "Child Alice." Other compositions — including "An Alice Symphony" (1969); "Final Alice" (1974-75), for amplified soprano, folk group, and orchestra; and "Haddocks' Eyes" (1985), for amplified soprano and teninstruments — reflect Del Tredici's ongoing fascination with Carroll's fantasy.
During a telephone interview from his New York City home, Del Tredici expressed his pleasure with Deutsche Grammophon's "beautiful production."
"I haven't had a European disc in a while and it has already gotten some quite good reviews in Time Out new York and Gramophone. I'm very pleased.," said Del Tredici. "David Gutman even mentions that I'm a gay activist."
The conversation naturally turned to Del Tredici's "It's a Gay Life." Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, commissioned the symphonic cycle adapted to texts by Paul Monette, Allen Ginsberg, and others. The work premiered in 2001 to mixed reviews.
The song cycle's tepid reception hardly equaled the censorship that greeted the aborted June 21, 2002 at Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival debut of Del Tredici's "Wondrous the Merge." The 20-minute piece, written for the Elements String Quartet, includes spoken excerpts from James Broughton's explicitly erotic poem of the same name. Deemed far too risqué for Michigan, only the non-controversial baritone aria and instrumental music was performed at the festival.
After getting wind of the intended censorship, Del Tredici learned that the festival is funded by Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant organizations.
"That seemed to me to be the problem," Del Tredici was quoted as saying before the performance. "Though they told me that the poem's language was too sexually explicit for their audience, it appears that the old-fashioned homophobia was the root of the trouble. For an older, pillar-of-the-community married man like Broughton to realize and act upon his long-repressed homosexuality, as his autobiographical poem depicts, is the right wing's worst nightmare."
Del Tredici refused to allow the festival to call the performance a world premiere. The unexpurgated premiere will take place in New York's Merkin Hall this fall.
"Gay Life" is another story. Though I praised certain parts of the cycle, other critics found themselves variously shocked and embarrassed by the composer's openness. Some felt that Del Tredici's public acknowledgment of gay intimacies is best avoided.
"I labor to do the opposite," declared a chuckling Del Tredici. "If you write music called 'Gay Life,' you want to celebrate what was supposedly uncelebratable in the past. I'm very much for having all my secrets up front and common knowledge, as I've always done. Be it alcoholism or being gay or whatever, they're part of me."
In telling his "secrets," Del Tredici may have simply been doing what he has done in a 12-step recovery program for close to two decades. Hollywood celebrities may be lauded for such openness on "Oprah," but few composers succeed with such candor. It's no wonder that cellist Matt Haimovitz is trying to cultivate a new audience for modern American classical music by performing in rock clubs.
"I certainly learned to be more open in 12-step groups," Del Tredici acknowledged. "At a certain point — I've been sober 18 years — I decided, 'I'm going to bring this out into my life. I can do that,' It was a very conscious decision. I chose what I did, and I've certainly taken my lumps for it. It has certainly affected critics like the one in San Francisco. The attack was so virulent, I was wondering what was behind it.
"I'm tired of the way composers' lives are prettied up with all the negative or controversial aspects taken out. I don't want to be another of those composers. For example, the books on Copland, until recently, didn't even mention that he was gay. In general, the gay issue is so closeted over in the biographies.
"I want to create a body of music that is explicitly gay so that it will exist. Once it exists, there it is. Deal with it! Because there rally isn't music that is specifically day. Some of it is ambiguously gay. When I choose texts for pieces like 'Gay Life,' I make sure they're explicit."
Del Tredici's latest song cycle, "On Wings of Song," reflects the fruits of his openness. Its second song, "New Year's Eve" was written by Carla Drysdale as an appreciation for his piano performance, in drag, at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts on New Year's Eve in 1998.
The composer reveals the song's original in the liner noted for the May 29 Merkin Hall performance.
"At breakfast on New Year's Day , Carla presented me with her newly-minted poem and I delightedly set it to music," Del Tredici recalled. What lifted her, moved her, was not so much my piano playing or the celebratory night, but the rather audacious dress and accessories in which I flew, as it were, across the keyboard. The song is fast and fiery, with an overdeveloped piano part reminiscent of my New Year's Eve exertions."
Many other Del Tredici songs for piano and voice reflect his sexual orientation. Three songs from the cycle "Brother," set for vocalist John Kelly (known for his Joni Mitchell impersonations) appear on the "Secret Music" disc. That disc, along with another CRI disc devoted solely to Del Tredici, is currently available at qualiton.com.
Del Tredici's major song cycle that no one will perform is called "My Favorite Penis Poems," It ends with Allen Ginsberg's "Please Master," an extraordinarily erotic S/M duet for baritone and soprano.
"We were going to do it at the Museum of Sex in New York — I thought it would be a perfect venue — but they don't really have a concert space. It's amazing how groups shy away from anything having to do with explicitness, be it gay or simply sexual."
I asked Del Tredici why he had chosen to set Ginsberg's explicit S/M poem as a female/male duet.
"I know," he responded with a laugh. "It's very inappropriate. The cycle alternates baritone and soprano songs, so I wanted to bring the singers together for this. I thought 'Hell, straight people do S/M too. It can have a little bit of that in it.' Ginsberg's poem is explicitly male-male, but this is a 'pants-role' in reverse."
Which harkens back to "Vintage Alice," a fabulous work, distinguished by Del Tredici's trademark hilarious inventiveness and fantastic leaps of musical imagination. Yet it, too caused controversy at its first performances, this time because it was one of the first tonal works the born again neo-romanticist dared to offer to a musical establishment that considered the tonality of the three Bs passé.
"I discovered Lewis Carroll's sentiment, his world of wit and whimsy, demanded another kind of music. Without realizing it, I got tonal," said Del Tredici.
Del Tredici's wit and whimsy had always been there. But he had never thought to express them in composition until he discovered in Alice "a way to let out my humor into music.
"I saw things in the text that I wouldn't have thought of had I not had that text in front of me," he said.
Listeners will especially enjoy the rhythmic distortions that accompany the Queen's declaration, "She's murdering the time."
Another new disc, Reference Recordings' "Bells for Stokowski," counts Del Tredici's 18-minute "In Wartime" among its three premiere recordings. His first piece for wind symphony was begun on November 16, 2002, shortly after Congress authorized an invasion of Iraq.
Captured in stunning sound, "In Wartime" contains two connected movements, "Hymn" and "Battlemarch." In the first, Del Tredici transmutes wit into irony, embedding fragments of the hymn "abide with Me" within music that expressed the coalescence of forces in prayer before battle. One cannot help but cast a wry smile at the brilliance of choosing The University of Texas Wind Ensemble to perform the work.
Although Del Tredici is currently most interested in writing chamber music, he remains "always on the lookout" for settings that express sexuality and gay poetry. He's especially interested in the poetry of Antler, a gay poet who writes "in the Ginsberg style: very erotic, very real, and inadvertently shocking because he uses language not in the poetic canon as words you can use." Even as he searches for new texts, Del Tredici witnesses performances of his compositions, such as the April premiere of "My Goldberg" with pianist Bruce Levingston in Alice Tully Hall. "Gotham Glory: Four Scenes from New York," a commission from Carnegie Hall written for gay pianist Anthony De Mare, receives its premier in Zankel Hall in March 2005.
"On Wings of Song," Del Tredici's 35-minutes sequence of five songs for soprano and piano, played without pause, debuts at Merkin Hall on May 29.
-Jason Victor Serinus, Gay City News, 27 May 2004
David Del Tredici is instead writing songs in a grippingly personal voice. His recent disk on CRI, "Secret Music," may be the best new-music album of the year, and his setting of Edna St. Vincent-Millay's "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" was the prize of Robert White's cavalcade of premieres.
-Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 10 December 2001
Restraint is perhaps not the right description of David Del Tredici, but he wrote a compelling setting of "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" by Edna St. Vincent-Millay, the accompaniment racing upward in gasps of memory.
-Anne Midgette, The New York Times, 22 November 2001
Sex and Romanticism? A Composer Dares All
The composer David Del Tredici was sitting in his studio in the West Village, surrounded by his eclectic collection of art, musical scores and various objects, talking about taboos. "I didn't know you could actually consider it composing," he said. "It was so forbidden."
Sounds spicy. But the forbidden thing he was referring to is nothing more risqué than simple tonality, the underpinning of much of Western music. For a period in the second half of the 20th century, tonality was anathema to serious composers.
His mention of the forbidden has nothing to do with "Wondrous the Merge," his setting for baritone and string quartet of a poem by James Broughton about the love affair between a professor and a student, both male. "Wondrous the Merge" created a stir when the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival presented its premiere last summer, minus a chunk of its text. The words were deemed too explicit for a family audience.
Mr. Del Tredici, 67, whose new cycle, "On Wings of Song," is a centerpiece of the 20th-anniversary gala of the Riverside Opera Ensemble at Merkin Concert Hall tonight, has a lot of fun flirting with the forbidden. His maverick trajectory led him from atonality to tonality, unheard-of in the 1970's, when he began a 20-year focus on setting texts from Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland."
The way Mr. Del Tredici deals with homosexuality in his art is perfectly in line with the antic, over-the-top joie de vivre that makes his "Alice" pieces such a delight. His flicks of archness in no way diminish the quality of his work. Indeed, he is, or has been, one of the United States' most acclaimed composers: a former composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. But he has always enjoyed (in every sense) a certain notoriety, at least since introducing tonality into his work in "Final Alice" (the mid-70's).
"The thing that's interesting for me as a composer, and I think for a lot of composers, is to do the thing which has not been done," he said. "It's a thrill to go where nobody's gone."
Right now, that new direction is the open celebration of what used to be known as the love that dare not speak its name. Arch euphemism, alas, is the only way to mention in a family euphemism some of the texts Mr. Del Tredici is setting.
Parterre Box, at www.parterre.com
, the Web publication that bills itself as "the queer opera zine," quotes a singer who has read the text of "Wondrous the Merge" as saying, "It all depends on how this is set."
If the notes were high, he said, "I'd modify that 'e' vowel anyway, so it would sound like I was drinking 'salmon'" — not semen.
Another new cycle is titled "My Favorite Penis Poems." (A sculpture of a penis sits atop Mr. Del Tredici's piano, like a muse.) In his quest for financing for it, he has approached unlikely sources like the Museum of Sex in Manhattan and Pfizer, the maker of Viagra. Be he can't get the songs performed. Maybe it is Allen Ginsberg's "Please Master," a long and very explicit sex scene, that puts people off.
You can't say those words," Mr. Del Tredici said in a stage whisper, pantomiming the horror of would-be presenters. "Some of my best songs are in the penis poems," he added ruefully.
The explicit focus on homosexuality in Mr. Del Tredici's work began in the mid-1990's, after personal crises: losing a lover to AIDS and battling alcoholism. After a weeklong workshop led by Body Electric, a school based in Oakland, Calif., that explores the uses of erotic energy in healing, Mr. Del Tredici returned to Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he had a residency. Then he began setting poems that other participants had written during the workshop.
"Suddenly I was writing with such speed and ease that it shocked me," he said. "I had a sense of what it must have been like for Schubert. It was just pouring out of me. I'd write a song a day, and I liked it, that's what was so amazing."
The first song he set was later incorporated into "Gay Life," a large piece he did for the San Francisco Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor, had asked him to write a piece that wasn't based on "Alice" texts, but even in San Francisco, "Gay Life," which had its premiere in 2001, must have been a little more than the orchestra had bargained for. The experience was difficult on both sides.
"I think there was a lot of resistance to it because of the subject matter," Mr. Del Tredici said. "When you get right to the inner workings of a symphony, it's very conservative. At one point, I was asked if I would mind changing the name to "San Francisco Songs.'" Of course, he did mind, and the work had its premiere in its entirety.
As campy as Mr. Del Tredici likes to act, it is a striking demonstration of the field's conservativism that in this day and age his work can elicit such shock. "Wondrous the Merge," the censored work from last summer, is a moving love poem, and most of it is not even sexual. The one sex scene is couched in perfectly ordinary language: "He seasoned my mouth, sweetened my neck, coddled my nipple, nuzzled my belly," and so on, southward, to the phallus and groin. And the unperformable "Penis Poems" are all settings of the works of legitimate poets, from Rumi to Ginsberg.
"I wanted to create works that celebrated being gay, since there are almost none," Del Tredici said. "Classical music is the last to move there. Think of people like Ginsberg. What was happening while Ginsberg was doing his stuff? We were involved in the most abstract kind of Schoenbergian atonalism: the opposite."
But it isn't just the texts that some critics have found hard to take in Mr. Del Tredici's recent work; rather, his overblown Romanticism, lushness and large scale have drawn fire. "Often the music seemed to be Nothing in Particular, Writ Large," Allan Kozinn of The New York Times wrote of "Grand Trio," which Mr. Del Tredici composed for the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio in 2001.
Harold Meltzer, a composer and founder of the group Sequitur, which has performed Mr. Del Tredici's music, said of it: "Whether you think it is a good thing or not a good thing, it's obviously indulgent music."
Certainly Mr. Del Tredici has had no more luch securing a complete performance of "Dum Dee Tweedle," and axhilarating and wonderfully unconventional opera based on more "Alice" texts, than he has with his "Favorite Penis Poems."
The problem is partly that classical music presenters want to retain the favor of their audience. Therefore, new commissions these days tend to be short; Mr. Del Tredici writes long.
New commissions also tend to be uncontroversial, in keeping with society's unspoken mandate that classical music be uplifting, tame and suitable as background at dinner parties. Classical audiences aren't used to being confronted by art the way that gallerygoers, theatre fans or readers of fiction are. The director of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, James Tocco, is also openly gay but told The Detroit Free Press, "I am conscious about what is appropriate for audiences."
This attitude is far from the kind of thinking that brought to the public "Seedbed," Vito Acconi's 1972 art installation that involved his masturbating all day under a platform on the floor of a gallery. Mr. Del Tredici's music is tame by comparison. It is also enjoyable.
"One gets tired of hearing song cycles about moonlight," Mr. Meltzer said. "It's kind of refreshing that David is actually tackling a topic that has relevance. It's nice to have songs about something people actually think about. People regard it as pornographic because they are not used to hearing about sex in a concert hall."
-Anne Midgette, The New York Times, 29 May 2004