Commissioned by The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Ravinia Festival, Aspen Music Festival and School, and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, on the occasion of the composer's 90th birthday.


realized by David Fetherolf

  • S, narr + pf/2vn.va.vc
  • Soprano, Narrator (female)
  • 38 min
  • Tom Stoppard
  • English
    • 23rd January 2022, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY, United States of America
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Programme Note

Previn's Penelope, the Long Trip to the Stage

André Previn died before completing his final composition — a monodrama about Homer’s Penelope, commissioned by The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Ravinia Festival, Aspen Music Festival and School, and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts — but he had nevertheless done very substantial work on it. André’s commissioners, publisher, and agents consulted among themselves and asked me, his editor of 22 years and close friend, to gather up what he had done and, if possible, to bring it to conclusion.

About two weeks after André’s death I met his son, Matthew, at André’s apartment and was given a pile of manuscript pages. As was often the case with André’s compositions, there were no bar numbers and few page numbers. Luckily, Tom Stoppard’s text was there, which guided me in putting the pages in correct order. There were many more pages than needed; in some, text was unaccompanied while in others the same text was accompanied. There were also some pages which were barely sketched in. I got everything in order and had my first meeting with soprano Renée Fleming, the Emerson Quartet violinist, Eugene Drucker, and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. We went through the manuscript and decided that I should set everything André had set, and then in rehearsal we would see what worked.

André had told me that Penelope was about 37 minutes long, but at our first rehearsal we discovered that it was nearly an hour, and that Renée had far more sung text than her previous conversations with André had suggested she would. They had conceived of Renée sharing the text with an actor, who would read some of Penelope’s lines. Luckily, she had her own libretto with sections marked “spoken” and “sung.” I immediately recognized much of the music André had set was marked “spoken.” So I went back to the manuscript.

I replaced many of the sung parts with the other pages I had found with text which was spoken. Some of these parts were accompanied by the quartet or piano, and some were just spoken. (At one point in the manuscript André had written “too long, no acc.”).

I sent the new score to Renée and Gene, and they sent back suggestions for some further nips and tucks, which I gladly considered and mostly used. Last, I gave Penelope the dedication I know André would have used: to Renée. It’s been such a pleasure, if a melancholy one, to see this through with Renée, Gene, Simone, and the others.

This score is the finalized, post-premiere realization of Penelope. At the premiere we found it best for the pianist to have a part which includes most of the full score and to be positioned in such a way as they can cue either the soprano or the narrator as needed. There is a separate part for the narrator, which includes much of the other music to follow, but the narrator could use the full score as well. The narrator’s part, with cues from the pianist, seems to work best with narrators who are not trained musicians. It’s important to understand that the spoken text, as represented in the score and parts, is an approximation, and may last slightly longer or shorter than it appears in the score when accompanied; players may have to adjust tempi in places to accommodate narrators who need a bit more time, but not for narrators who finish “early.” We expect the soprano would sing off the full score. It seems unnecessary to point out, but, both the soprano and the narrator are Penelope, and should be presented as such.

— David Fetherolf

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