Two Elegies

download Notturno Oscuro [ mp3 - 2.6 MB ]
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download Trenodia [ mp3 - 9 MB ]
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In 1968 an acquaintance who was a student at St. John Fisher College promoted a concert at Nazareth College auditorium consisting of Rochester composers conducting first performances of their own works with an orchestra made up of members of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and other Rochester musicians. For this concert I assembled a piece I called Two Elegies.

The two pieces it contained originally were not composed to be used together.What I now call Notturno Oscuro (Dark Night) was composed around 1963 for piano, as an exercise for a graduate theory class at the Eastman School of Music. The assignment was to write a polychordal piece. (A polychord is a sonority consisting of two different chords, usually triads, sounding simultaneously: for example C major in the bass and D major in the treble.) My piece is a little different in that the triads are built on perfect fourths rather than the more usual major and minor thirds. The treble triads move upward as the bass ones move downward and vice versa. (Later there ARE some brief sections with the triads in the bass built on thirds.) A short contrasting middle section follows in which a simple melody in the treble is accompanied with chords in a different key (= bitonality). Then the opening sounds return in a slightly altered version, resulting in an ABA' form.

For this concert I scored the Notturno Oscuro for string orchestra. At the opening the violins, divided into three parts, play the upper triads, and the lower strings, also divided into three parts, play the lower triads. In the middle section violins perform the melody and the other strings provide the chords. For the final section the instruments are once again divided as at the beginning, but played first by solo instruments and then by the full body of strings. At the end a solo violin, followed by a solo violoncello, sing over a polychord in the remaining strings.

I had composed Trenodia (Threnody) [song for the dead] around 1959 when I was at the graduate school of the University of Illinois, where I studied with two fine composers and teachers, Burrill Phillips and Gordon W. Binkerd. This piece was to be the second of three movements of a sinfonia. I had completed the first movement earlier. The third movement was never written.

Trenodia is an example of an "arch" form. There are three sections of music arranged in this order: ABCB'A'. In A the oboe and horn play melodies over wide-spread chords in the strings; B is a conversation among the woodwinds over harp arpeggios; and C is a three-voice canon, at a wide distance, in the upper strings over chords in the violoncellos (divided into 4 parts) and string basses (in 2 parts). An arpeggio in the harp signals the divisions between the sections. B' and A' are shortened versions of the first two sections, and the C section is long enough to balance the other two.

The piece begins on one note in the violins and gradually fans out into widely-spread chords in divided strings. For the final section the process is reversed until only the same one note remains in the violins (this final note is difficult to hear in this recording since it is so quiet).

Trenodia is dedicated to the memory of Ralph Vaughan Williams, a favorite composer of mine, and was written in 1959, a year after his death. It has the subtitle: in memoriam: R. V. W. In 1970 Lukas Foss, then conductor of The Buffalo Philharmonic, invited me to conduct this work with them at SUNY Brockport when they were touring New York state colleges and performing professors' music. The performance here is from the Nazareth College concert.

I remember that, prior to the concert, as I was getting dressed in a very formal outfit with long tails, I heard on the news that Charles Munch had died in Richmond, Virginia. Munch was a favorite conductor of mine and was then leading a French orchestra on tour. I had visited Richmond when I was in the army and was not impressed with it. I thought how unfitting it was for this very elegant French man to die in such a place, and about how often he had dressed in this outfit I was putting on that seemed so unusual for me. I decided that I would dedicate the performance of Trenodia to his memory, as one musician to another. I don't know if this psyched the orchestra members; but for whatever reason, they played admirably, even though there really were too few strings to do the piece justice.

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