Ode to Henry Purcell (Fine, Vivian)
Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano, and the Atlantic String Quartet
(Linda Quan and Timothy Baker, violins; Lois Martin, viola; Christopher Finckel, cello)
Vivian Fine Estate
Scores and Parts
|Work Title||Ode to Henry Purcell|
|Year/Date of Composition||1984|
|First Performance||1985-10-30, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Founder’s Day Concert.|
|Librettist||Rainer Maria Rilke and Gerard Manley Hopkins|
|Average Duration||16 minutes|
|Composer Time Period||Modern|
|Instrumentation||soprano and string quartet|
Commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation of the Library of Congress
[This piece is] a kind of reconciliation of these two musical languages, of a more tonal language, and my early atonal language….It’s almost as if I’m talking about the destruction of tonality. It begins with an idiom that very much resembles the early idiom. Then it goes into a more Purcellian kind of thing, modified of course, and it ends with an epilogue.
The first song is an “Ode to Orpheus,” by Rilke, in which Orpheus’s music calms the animals and they come to listen to him. Then there is a “Purcellian Air on a Ground.” Then “Pied Beauty,” a great poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins….After that there comes another “Air on a Ground.” Then there’s the second “Sonnet to Orpheus” in which Orpheus is torn apart, literally physically torn apart, by the Maenads, they destroy him. It’s as if—it wasn’t clear to me until the work was over—it’s as if the music is describing what happened to tonality—it became this destroyed thing.
The next part is a setting of “Henry Purcell” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Have, fair fallen, O fair, fair have fallen, so dear to me, so arch-especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell,” Then, “Not mood in him nor meaning, proud fire or sacred fear, Or love, or pity, or all that sweet notes not his might nursle: It is the forgèd feature finds me.” And it ends with an epilogue in which Rilke says, “even in destructiveness a poet can make a world.” There’s some connection there about something being destroyed, and making another world out of it.
As in many things that I do, it wasn’t a conscious attempt, but in looking back, this is what happened. You’ll hear it musically—you’ll hear the two kinds of music that I’m working with.
- —Vivian Fine, speaking at Harvard, April 20, 1989
Fine wrote counterpoint with long phrases for “Sonnet to Orpheus.” Frequently each member of the string quartet functions as a singer, having phrase lengths and rhythmic patterns similar to fine’s vocal realization of the poertry….one interesting use of kaleidoscoping is in the first “sonnet to Orpheus.” The text is about listening as a spiritual tool for understanding, and for the the closing passage “und wo eben kaum eine Hutte war, dies zu empfangen” (“And where before there was hardly a shed where this listening could go”), Fine recapitualated the string quartet’s lines by superimposing phrases from differing parts of the sonnet.
“Pied Beauty” begins with a vocal solo, “Glory be to God for dappled things.” Fine reflects this dappling and Hopkin’s creative use of language in the string quartet’s accompaniment to the voice. She composed a four-measure ostinato of sextuplets and a quintuplet for the first violin, which is so variegated it is impossible to find a pattern for the multitude of pitch choices and the subtle phrasing in groups of 12, 6, 9, 7, and so on. The second violin’s countermelody is formed from pitches at the end of each sextuplet. In prevous compositions when Fine wanted such a texture,she would use a rotational pitch system, retrogrades, and canons, as in Missa Brevis. Such is not the case with “Pied Beauty.” When the ostinato is repeated, it is moved to another voice and thickened by having an additional voice move at a third below and then in the next cycle by having voices a third above and below. The texture is further variegated by having a slower countermelody shift so that it outlines other pitches from the active texture.
In the third song of the cycle, a second “Sonnet to Orpheus,” Fine has the quartet’s material provide unity and contrast. Its energetic four-measure phrase announces and influences the soprano’s beginning solo passage. Later the quartet’s phrase returns trilled and elongated….A pizzicato ostinato texture somewht reminscent of “Pied Beauty” becomes the setting for a new section, which is a mixture of sprechstimme and normal singing….
The last song, “Henry Purcell” is simpler, with the melodic praises to Purcell embroidered upon the repeating Ground. A vocal quote from the first “Sonnet to Orpheus ends “Henry Purcell” and leads to the epilogue, which repeats the ostinato from Hopkin’s “Pied Beauty” but with new melody and text by Rilke place above.
- —Heidi Von Gunden, The Music of Vivian Fine, Scarecrow Press, 1999
…exquisitely chosen texts…a significant addition to the limited repertoire for voice and string quartet….[Bryn-Julson’s] deeply involved, musically precise performance contributed greatly to the music’s impact.
- —Joseph McLellan, The Washington Post, October 31, 1985