Today was the 10th anniversary of the premiere of my first commissioned work.
Cycle of Friends, for soprano, chorus and chamber orchestra, was premiered on May 3rd, 1996 by the Music Group of Philadelphia. Artistic Director Sean Deibler had been one of my undergraduate teachers, and has been a mentor and all-around guru ever since. I was very lucky to be one of three composers he chose for a three-year commissioning binge he was on at the time, thanks to a special grant. The commission came through as I was finishing my master’s degree at the S.F. Conservatory. (I was studying with Conrad Susa when I wrote this piece; it doesn’t get better than that for choral music.)
This was a dream come true at the time. I had sung in Sean’s choruses at the University of the Arts as well as his Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia, which was then the Philadelphia Orchestra’s chorus of choice. So, thanks to Sean, I was intimately familiar choral music from a cappella gems like the Ravel Trois Chansons, Hindemith’s Six Chansons and Barber’s Reincarnations to massive symphonic masterworks including The Damnation of Faust and John Adams’ Harmonium. (I should post a complete list, just for fun someday. It’s pretty amazing.) So, I was chomping at the bit to write a big choral piece myself.
About Cycle of Friends
No guidelines were given, except that I could use any number of the four soloists who were called for in another piece on the program, and the orchestral forces, which included single winds, one trumpet, harp, percussion and strings. The rest was up to me.
After a period of agonizing over what texts to use, I settled on some things I’d found in a small anthology called Friendship Poems. This little book included a variety of poems from all over the world and from all eras. I liked the idea of taking poetry from very different times and places, and combining them to illustrate a universal theme, in this case, that of friendship.
There were a lot of poems in the book that I wanted to set, but eventually I winnowed it down to five very short ones that I arranged in such a way as to create an emotional narrative.
I. “Tell Everyone” (Sappho)
I chose this very short fragment from Sappho as an opener. The text is simply:
Tell everyone. Now, today I shall sing beautifully for my friends’ pleasure.
Here’s an excerpt:
II. “My Old Friend Prepared a Chicken With Millet”
Meng Hao-Jan (Tang Dynasty era)
This is one of two Chinese poems I used, both in shimmering translation by Innes Herdan. This one is a lilting account of a meeting between two friends.
Wait until the Autumn Festival:
I shall come again,
To enjoy your chrysanthemums.
The musical treatment is bittersweet. Will these two friends really meet again?
Have a listen:
III. “Are Friends Delight Or Pain?” (Emily Dickinson)
This is the one a cappella movement. In fact, here the chorus is divided into two discrete SATB groups for an interesting texture. The entire movement, you may notice, is on an E pedal, which I thought was fun.
Are friends delight or pain?
Could Bounty but remain
Riches were good —
But if they only stay
Ampler to fly away
Riches were sad.
“Are Friends Delight or Pain” is available as a stand-alone a cappella work and available in print or download format from Swirly Music.
IV. “Blue Hills Over the North Wall” Li Po (Tang Era)
This movement is for soprano and orchestra with no chorus. This is a particularly moving poem, again translated by Innes Herdan, and functions as a sort of denouement in my view. It’s the emotional core of the piece. Quite simply, two friends are parting ways. We don’t know why.
Blue hills over the north wall
White water swirling to the east of the city:
This is where you must leave me —
V. Friendship Aztec (Traditional)
I used this is a lush folk poem to close the piece.
Our song is bird calling out like a jingle:
how beautiful you make it sound!
The soprano emerges after a choral outburst with an extremely lyrical setting of these lines. The chorus creeps in gradually as the climax of the work approaches.
Here’s a track containing the two final move, which are connected.