FIFTH BUSINESS: Program notes


Ever since I was a child, I’ve been obsessed by poetry. One of my first poems, written when I was 7 and titled “Beauty Can Be Destructive,” was placed in a frame by my elementary school principal, Dr. Hedwig Pregler. I remember sitting in her office once, next to her, as the parents of two boys with whom I’d come to blows complained about my “brutal” behavior. As Dr. Pregler extolled my character I looked up at my poem, hanging behind the boys’ parents, and understood that my actions would be seen in their proper context. I would attend poetry readings by renowned poets before I was a teenager. One of my heroes was Yevgeny Yevtushenko. When Miss Avalon, the library teacher at Colfax Elementary School in Pittsburgh, informed us we must choose a poem to read in class, I was delighted, and read “Irreconcilable,” by the popular Russian poet. Miss Avalon, who had recently been crowned Miss McKeesport, was aghast at my selection. One of my classmates, Maida, proclaimed that I was a communist, a sentiment Miss Avalon supported; but the Queen of McKeesport didn’t dare send me to the principal, as she knew Dr. Pregler would not take kindly to any teacher questioning my moral compass. I had the pleasure of acquiring Yevtushenko’s signature on the poetry collection from which I read in class not too long after my recitation, when he came to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall to do a reading in front of a packed house. Different era, the 1960’s.


As years passed, my interest in poetry never waned. When my wife, Lisa, and I lived in Philadelphia we were habitués of the Bucks County Community College Poetry forums. That might sound a rather unlikely venue for great poetry, but the master of ceremonies, the late Louis Camp, populated the BC³ forum with poets of great talent and prestige. Following the readings, the ringleader Louis Camp would insist we join in for the after party, which would consist of lively arguments, outrageous drunken revelry, and frequent fisticuffs. On one occasion I had to separate a poet from an enraged assailant. The poet, who must remain nameless, had insulted his assailant’s girlfriend, and was making unwanted advances on her at the same time. The “girlfriend,” incidentally, was an attorney, her boyfriend was a biker with gang affiliation, and the poet had the nickname of “Bunny.” It’s always difficult to relate the entire story while keeping it clear that Bunny was the poet’s nickname, and that I was intent on keeping the biker from being harmed by Bunny’s tendency to lash out with dangerous result, entirely without warning, especially when he was, as he was frequently, stonkered.


All that precedes is preamble to an explanation about my friendship with Robert Kelly, the eminent poet, who provides the first two sonnets of this collection. After Lisa and I found ourselves in the Boston area, we frequented the poetry readings sponsored by our friend, John Wronoski, at his establishment in Cambridge: the Pierre Menard Art Gallery. John introduced me to Robert Kelly at one of the readings; and later, Kelly would introduce me to a young string quartet, studying at Bard College, where the poet had been ensconced for five decades. The quartet would premiere my string quartet “The Garden of Forking Paths,” at the Pierre Menard, just a few weeks before the gallery shut its doors forever. Kelly spoke with admiration for my music, and startled me with a poem about my music; which prompted me to return his compliment the best way I could, through a musical setting of Sonnet 4, for Lydia, for mezzo-soprano and string quartet; followed close on with a setting of Spring Sonnet for soprano and quartet.


Following the pair of Kelly sonnets are four of my settings of Shakespeare.


When composing the music to Sonnet 8 (Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?), I envisioned a couple at a concert. The young man cannot enjoy the music as he is distracted by the question of marriage and its attendant responsibilities. If you will follow me here, I imagined that the soprano and mezzo are singing a different text than that which he (and you, the audience) hear. Perhaps the ladies are singing something in French that our young man cannot comprehend, “Dôme épais le jasmine A la rose s’assemble.” It’s all Greek to him, and maybe there are subtitles, a clumsy translation, and he sees the word “harmony,” but he can’t pay attention to the real meaning. He glances at his girlfriend who seems serenely present, at one with the music; and as he focuses again on the singers he invents in his mind a text, videlicet: Shakespeare’s thesis promoting marriage and most importantly, the goal of the union: a child.


Each sonnet I set, whether  Sonnet 110 or Sonnet 144  or Sonnet 51 is a specific reflection on my life. I don’t believe in setting to music any poem that doesn’t have significant personal meaning to me. But that personal meaning doesn’t need to impinge upon the listener’s experience. I’ve said too many times, as an example, that I might have decided to depict the color red with a particular passage of music, but the percipient might hear that as the smell of coffee. It’s not my business to restrict the audience’s interpretation, imagination. My real life inspiration should – if I’ve done my job – create the verisimilitude prerequisite for your own truth. Sonnet 110 is a lament about my beloved late uncle, Bernie; but that is not what Shakespeare was thinking of when he wrote the poem; nor should it be what the listener ponders. As I noted previously, in my Sonnet 8 setting, I created an imaginary audience member who had no knowledge of even the words of the sonnet.


Boston based Composer Tom Schnauber, when I approached him about a sonnet project, decided he wanted to move up one level, from a sonnet about something, to a sonnet about sonnets. Scorn Not the Sonnet is a William Wordsworth (first prize for best name for a poet) sonnet defending the form from animadversion; though was this frowning critic’s criticism worth Wordsworth’s criticism? It’s dubious; as the sonnet was riding high after a period of disinterest when Wordsworth penned this name-dropping defense. Succeeding Schnauber’s sonnet are two Shakespearean excerpts, Cannikin Clink, a drinking song from Othello, and Sisters Weird, a quite well-known scene from Macbeth. Howard Frazin, another Boston based composer, presents Denise Levertov’s poem A Wren, for a mezzo-soprano and cello.


Binna Kim, (yet another Boston based composer) uses a cello and piano to illuminate the wildly changing cogitations of the mercurial Lady MacBeth in Give Me Your Hand. Kim presents the text to the famous scene in a disjointed fashion. Her program notes clarify the disordered nature of her setting. She writes, “give me your hand is written for mezzo soprano, cello, and piano. The text is from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, specifically from Act 5 Scene 1, famously known as Lady Macbeth’s sleep walking scene. The scene starts with Lady Macbeth perceiving spots on her hand and her attempts to wash it off. Her words recall fragments from the murders of Duncan, Banquo, and Lady Macduff by Macbeth and herself. Her speech has become fragmented and broken by an enormous emotional pressure, which shows Lady Macbeth’s fraying mental state. Throughout the scene, we are given snippets of what is tormenting her, it reveals a psyche that is saturated with a myriad of emotions- anger, austerity, sadness, and remorse.  It shows the vulnerable image of her that is not revealed in her wake state. This piece is weaved together by two main musical motives, which includes a lullaby theme and a clock chiming sound- those two musical elements interplay with one another in various ways to reflect Lady Macbeth’s inner conflict. These two musical motives follow her emotions and gets fragmented, distorted and intertwined together as her words and mind frantically jumps from different states.”


As I write these program notes, my wife, Lisa, is preparing to travel to Boston for the day. That’s a little over forty miles from our home in Worcester. We’ve been married a little over forty years now (since 1978) and I miss her when she leaves for a day. I’m aware that that is pathetic. Lisa travels around the world, lecturing about her specialty in the field of Music Therapy; which has led to long absences from me; though I’ve maintained a two week rule, which means that as I can’t accept any separation longer than two weeks. I often fly to her when she nears the forbidden time boundary. My pairing of Sonnets 97 & 98 is about the enormously overwrought anxiety I must endure when Lisa is away. The compositional objective was to set the first sonnet of the pair, the 97th, with as much cloying pathos as the listener could tolerate, and then to place the second sonnet, the 98th, in which is enunciated a more reasonable attitude towards separation, over the first, in such a way as to make the complaint of the first sonnet appear exaggerated, while sill respecting my emotional distress. When Lisa and I were first married she would beg me to cease “mooning” over her. I couldn’t do that; and here I am, doing it again.


“Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant, And my ending is despair, Unless I be relieved by prayer,” ends The Tempest, and so, too this collection of song, with my original Epilogue to the Tempest, written before I set the entire play as a chamber opera. (Those who have heard my operatic treatment will find some small differences.)

— Joseph Summer



The Shakespeare Concerts Series


Begun in 2003, The Shakespeare Concerts presents music inspired by the immortal bard: from original English text settings to settings in translation by composers from the classical period to the 21st century. The mainstay of the series is the music of Joseph Summer, with premieres of more than a quarter of his nearly one hundred Oxford Songs; settings, primarily, of text by William Shakespeare. Music to Hear focuses on sonnets, and introduces three contemporary composers to our series’ audience. The Ulysses String Quartet, winner of first prize in the 2018 Schoenfeld International String Competition; grand prize and gold medal in the 2016 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition; first place in the American Prize and second prize at the Osaka International Chamber Music Competition in 2017 is the featured ensemble for this ninth disc in the Shakespeare Concert Series on Navona.


For further information about concerts and a catalogue of available recordings, please visit:


This album was made possible thanks to a generous donation from the Mattina R. Proctor Foundation.



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