• fl, ca, bcl, tbn, perc, pf, vn, va, vc, db
  • mezzo soprano, Bass, Guitar
  • 20 min
  • John Ashbery
  • English, Greek

Programme Note

Composer Note:

When John Ashbery and I decided to collaborate on a musical work (for which we applied and received a composer-Librettist Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts) I studied various texts he wrote for this project and chose his poem Syringa. This attracted me because of its fascinating, distant, quiet treatment of a familiar, many-sided, affecting subject: Orpheus and the power of music. The idea of accompanying the singer of Ashbery's text with another singer whose part would express the subliminal background that might be evoked in the mind of a reader, very soon suggested itself. Indeed, lines near the poem's end: 'In whose tale are hidden syllables/ Of what happened so long before that' led to the idea that the second singer could have a text that reflects some of the sounds, ideas, and feelings of the Ashbery poem in 'hidden syllables'-the 'hidden syllables' of classical Greek, since the poem is about a classical myth.
The well-known story of Orpheus as referred to in the Ashbery poem ends in a kind of apotheosis, so the entire work is set in the frame of the Orphic cult that grew up around the musician when, after his dismemberment, his head, still singing, floated across the Aegean Sea from Greece to Asia Minor, and its burial place became a shrine.
In this score, the mezzo-soprano sings the Ashbery text while the bass sings fragments of Greek texts chosen by me, starting with the Orphic creation story, including a few lines attributed by Plato to the actual poet, Orpheus. Then, breaking down on the word "immortal," the bass sings a lament for Eurydice. After the intervention of Apollo in the Ashbery poem, the bass presents settings of various lyric fragments from the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. by Mimnermus, Archilochus, Sappho, and Ibycus reflecting aspects of the modern poem. Later, while the mezzo is singing: 'But how late to be regretting,' the bass presents Plato's version of the story: The gods, when Orpheus came to Hades to rescue Eurydice, allowed him to be followed only by her ghost, not by the real person, "because, being a musician, he would not have the courage to die for love."
The remaining Greek draws on Heraclitus about constant change, on the Homeric hymn about music, on a diatribe against Apollo (from Cassandra's madness in the Agamemnon, that puns on the god's name which also means "destroying" in Greek), and ends with a reference to the Orphic cult words soma, sema- body, sign (of the soul).
The score, dedicated to Sir William and Lady Glock, is for mezzo-soprano and bass accompanied by guitar, alto flute, English horn, bass clarinet, bass trombone, piano, violin, viola, 'cello, contrabass, and percussion. It was first performed by Jan de Gaetani (mezzo-soprano) and Thomas Paul (bass) with Speculum Musicae conducted by Harvey Sollberger, at a concert celebrating my seventieth birthday at Tully Hall in New York City on December 10, 1978.

-- Elliot Carter