summer’s Distillation

Music inspired by Brahms’s Four Songs for Women’s Chorus, Horns, and Harp



Then were not summer’s distillation left,

A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass…



The title of this album is misleading in one regard: Schumann’s Drei Gesänge predates Brahms’s Vier Gesänge by more than a decade. However, this is my distillation, a title I derived from Shakespeare’s Sonnet V, and thus I feel entitled to narrate from my distant perspective in time.


When I was a student at Oberlin Conservatory in the early 1970s, a coed asked me to sit in on a rehearsal of Brahms’s opus 17. She thought I might have something useful to say about her ensemble’s preparation of the work. I was unfamiliar with it. When I thought “opus 17,” what came to mind was Beethoven’s French Horn sonata, which, as a lackluster but earnest hornist, I had played often. I was shocked when I opened the Brahms score and discovered the ensemble consisted of two horns and harp. How unique and strange! I sat down in the 150 seat Kulas recital hall, alone in the audience, and listened. The opening solo horn appealed to me, but when the women’s voices entered I began to cry; and then weep. I could barely restrain myself from sobbing. I sat transfixed, a liquid prisoner of the awesome beauty of the Brahms, for the entirety of the rehearsal. When the young soprano asked me for criticism, I could offer none. I experienced the music as a transcendent epiphany. It changed the course of my life.


Theretofore I’d never written for voice. Subsequently I could but rarely compose anything lacking it. Over the ensuing years I eschewed the combination of harp and voice, in part because I felt uncomfortable with the idiomatic expectations and the audacity of assuming the right to benefit from the inherent beauty of the instrument. In addition, unlike the rest of the instruments of the orchestra, I couldn’t claim even a modicum of apprehension of how the cumbersome creature worked. Indeed, during the preparation for this concert I have learned from Franziska Huhn how little I still know about the harp. Franziska had to take me by the hand and show me how ineptly I had written for her instrument, even coercing me into my first harp lesson. All of the works of mine on this recording I have rewritten–sometimes significantly–with her assistance.


In 1995 I wrote my first two pieces for harp and voice, more than two decades after hearing the Brahms: If by Your Art, and Sonnet CIV. They were first performed in Prague, before I’d established The Shakespeare Concerts. That year, 2003, I decided I wanted to include the Brahms in the second year of the fledgling series, presuming as I did there would be a second year; and I wanted to write a work which would clearly show my indebtedness to opus 17. I wrote Sonnet CXXXIII for the ensemble of harp and horns, substituting the women’s chorus with a solo soprano and tenor. With unbecoming assumption I had decided that such a piece would perforce sneak its way into the repertoire because–in the future, perhaps posthumously (“for fear of which, hear this thou age unbred: Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead – Sonnet CIV)–when ensembles contemplated Brahms they might have to consider my contribution. I imagined a music director, hands tied by the necessities of hiring two horns and harp, thinking “what other works can we perform with horns and harp, after all, we’ve hired them already?”


Perhaps even, the additions to this recherché ensemble’s repertoire might encourage more performances of the Brahms? (That is undeniably presumptuous, I know.) Two more works of my own devising on this program continued my endeavor to insert my music next to the opus 17: the opening work, the pairing of Sonnets V and VI, a question and answer, to steal Benjamin Pesetsky’s titular conceit; and Sonnet LXXIII.  Adding an ally in my assault on the Brahms citadel, I asked Benjamin Pesetsky to compose a work for the opus 17 ensemble. He obliged with Answer and Question, a setting of Shakespeare from All’s Well that Ends Well.


Continuing the idea of permutations and variations on the Brahms opus 17 ensemble are my Sonnet XCI for two horns and tenor; and “O God, that I were a man,” my interpretation of Beatrice’s passionate call to arms from Much Ado About Nothing.


As for the Schumann, one rarely hears the Drei Gesänge performed as Schumann intended, on harp. I find it interesting that this piece utilizes the poetry of an English lord, though in German, and Brahms’s subsequent Vier Gesänge also employs translations of English texts in two of the four movements; in regards to the second movement, the words are of an English earl, Edward DeVere, the author we refer to as William Shakespeare.

(JSS 09 03 18)

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