We composers—and probably all artists—sometimes like to think that what we create is wholly original and breaking new ground. As I’ve matured as an artist, I’ve actually found this rarely to be the case: the music of composers past whom I greatly admire has found its way into my writing, oftentimes without my realizing it. My Trio is a case in point, whose harmonic language and brooding character owes much to the music of the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975), in particular his String Quartet in C minor, op. 110. The range of moods in this quartet, from demonical to pathetic, are also found in my Trio, though I think my penchant for long, lyrical lines (part of my Romantic proclivities) is evident as well, particularly in the work’s second movement.
Three musical ideas unify my Trio: the opening melody of the first movement, heard in various guises throughout the piece; a nervous sixteenth-note figure, first heard in the first movement; and a three-note motive (a descending minor second followed by a descending minor third), also in the first movement. This motive is subjected to a number of transformations, appearing in its most conflicted form when all three notes sound together at the midpoint of the second movement. It was only during the recording of this piece that one of the players observed that the notes of this transformation of the motive—E-flat, C, and B-natural—are found in the motive that unifies Shostakovich’s quartet: D, E-flat, C, and B natural (the E-flat and B natural known in German as “Es” and “H,” respectively, spelling out the first letter of the composer’s first name, and the first three letters of his last in one of its alternative spellings: Dmitri Schostakovich). I was completely unaware I had done this, though this does seem to be evidence of the profound influence Shostakovich has had on my music. Nevertheless, this trio remains for me an intensely personal work, much as Shostakovich’s quartet was, I believe, for him. I like to think that what I learned from this Russian master has been filtered through my own musical and emotional sensibilities, and in that sense, this trio is an original work, one which I hope finds a place in the 21st-century repertory for strings.
From the Valley of Baca (2016)
The inspiration for this piece came from two sources: one was my work Job, written for my friend, baritone Lawrence Indik, which employed both English and Hebrew texts from the Bible book of the same name; the other was the plight of the Syrian refugees in 2015 as they fled their war-torn country in hope of finding a new home in Europe. It was thus I happened upon the idea of writing a song cycle for baritone and piano based on the poetry of Jewish authors, with the common theme of a lost people searching for a homeland.
After perusing a number of anthologies of Jewish poetry, I came upon the writings of Emma Lazarus, of whose poetry, like many Americans, I knew only “The New Colossus,” dedicated to the millions of immigrants who emigrated to the United States in search of a new life. What I did not know is that in 1882 Lazarus had published Songs of a Semite, a volume of poetry that dealt directly with her Jewish heritage and the persecution of Jews in Europe. I was immediately struck by the power and lyricism of these poems, and Lazarus’s struggle to put into words the long suffering of her people, and their quest for deliverance from oppression.
One poem in particular inspired the overall form of the song cycle: at the head of the poem, “The Valley of Baca,” Lazarus cites the 84th Psalm—this gave me the idea of interspersing the verses of this psalm amongst the five poems I chose to set. I also decided that, seeing how this work would center on a Jewish theme, I would set the psalm in its original Hebrew. Lawrence Indik was kind enough to provide a transliteration of the Hebrew, and referred me to a cantor, Hazzan David Tilman, who recorded the verses in Hebrew, which I listened to many times over so that the prosody of the words would be accurately rendered in a musical setting. I hope this work brings recognition to a writer whom I feel has been woefully underappreciated for her great poetic gifts, and also speaks to the strength and endurance of the Jewish people, as well as all people who to this day search for justice in the face of persecution and prejudice.
Additional note: When I first met with Hazzan David Tilman, he was kind enough to provide me with a wealth of information about Jewish liturgical music. One piece of music in particular caught my ear—the prayer “Ani Ma’amin,” composed during the Holocaust. A Hebrew transliteration of the text and an English translation follow:
Ani ma’amin b’emunah sh’leimah b’viat hamashiach, v’af al pi sh’yitmameah, im kol zeh achakeh lo b’chol yom sheyavo.
I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and, though he tarry, I will wait daily for his coming.
I have interpolated the melody of the prayer in second song of the cycle, “Across the Eastern sky.” It is heard in the piano while the baritone sings:
When the long roll of Christian guilt
Against his sires and kin is known,
The flood of tears, the life-blood spilt,
The agony of ages shown,
What oceans can the stain remove,
From Christian law and Christian love?
A recording of the original melody, sung in Hebrew, may be found here.
In 2015, my pianist friend Katelyn Bouska suggested I write a piece for a recital which would include Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B minor, op. 58. The resulting work was a six-minute piece entitled Rhapsody, which Katelyn performed in Paris later that year, along with Chopin’s sonata. The falling B minor arpeggio that begins Chopin’s work was the inspiration for the opening phrase of my piece, also beginning on a B, but ending on a tonally ambiguous chord composed of D-sharp–E-sharp–B, and followed by a sighing chromatic line in the upper register of the piano. After premiering the work, Katelyn suggested that I add two more movements to form a sonata, and this I did, using the sighing phrase as a motive to bind the work together.
When I first heard Katelyn play the entire piece, I was astonished at how romantic it sounded—the aural impression I had in my head for the nine months I had worked on the sonata was, I thought, a distinctly modern one, or at least sounding something like a piece composed after 1950. Yet once I became used to the sound of the work, I was rather pleased with the results, especially its architecture and formal cohesiveness, and how it exploits almost all of the piano’s range. Hearing the work also revealed to me how much the creative process seems to happen on a subconscious level. Save for the opening phrase of Chopin’s sonata, I did not draw on that work for any other part of my sonata—yet something of Chopin’s musical style, as well as that of other Romantic-era composers, must have been gestating in my mind, since this mode of expression found voice in my music (evidence, I think, that the past informs the work of all composers, however we might try to escape it).
Where this piece might find a place in the 21st-century classical music repertory, I cannot say—but I can say that it is not intended as an anachronism or a pastiche of an earlier style of music. It is, rather, a work of honest emotional expression by a 21st-century composer. I have reason to believe that there still are audiences receptive to this mode of expression, when more than ever, we need music to help us find meaning in our chaotic era.
— David Carpenter
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