About this Recording
8.559788 - BOLCOM, W.: Canciones de Lorca / Prometheus (R. Barbera, Biegel, Pacific Chorale and Symphony, St. Clair)

William Bolcom (b. 1938)


Canciones de Lorca (2006)

William Bolcom supplied the following note for the 2006 première performance by Pacific Symphony, with Plácido Domingo as the tenor soloist, to celebrate the opening of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, California:

Canciones de Lorca explores a different Lorca from Blood Wedding or Yerma, the bleak and tragic side of Federico García Lorca, which is all most playgoers know of him in our country. The Lorca that Spanish scholars—and people in the street and throughout the Spanish-speaking world—know and love is far more varied: full of surrealistic humour, passion, wisdom, mystery, and mostly the Andalusian flamenco tradition, which lurks behind almost every lyric he wrote.

When I discussed with Plácido Domingo which Lorca poems to set for his cycle with the Pacific Symphony, I mentioned La casada infiel, or “The unfaithful housewife.” (I understand that Lorca was so often besieged to recite that poem that it became a counterpart to Rachmaninoff’s C# minor Prelude for him: a chore.) Immediately Maestro Domingo began to recite La casada by heart, then submitted a list of his other favourites, four of which I set (I added three of my own selections; his choices are La casada infiel, Alba, Árboles, and Soneto de la dulce queja).

The more I delved into flamenco through poetry, film, dance, and story, the more it appeared that each Lorca poem selected had at least one implicit melody or song behind it. (Lorca was a trained musician and could well have become a composer; there are several songs of his extant, and the recordings we have of him playing show a fine, sensitive pianist.) I don’t pretend to have discovered either Lorca’s hidden tunes, and sometimes, as in Alba, I used a style—an Argentine ballad of the sort Carlos Gardel might have sung—that Lorca might not have had in mind. But I tried to approach the Andalusian popular-song-lyric atmosphere I felt latent in all of these poems.

Balanza introduces us to the conflict between the night and the day so prevalent in Lorca. Following a short orchestral interlude comes La casada infiel, a ruefully humorous telling of a short affair between (possibly) a policeman and a woman who pretends to be unmarried; this is possibly the poet’s most famous lyric. There are two poems at least named Alba in Lorca’s output; this one from 1919 recalls to me the hopeless passion of Carlos Gardel’s singing. Danza da lúa en Santiago is a jota, a fast, whirling Galician dance. The mysticism of Árboles calls up a less vernacular, more angular musical language, followed by Soneto de la dulce queja, an attempt at authentic cante jondo, the central musical style of Andalusia. The tragic and dramatic Poet in New York group of poems, written during Lorca’s 1929 sojourn in New York City, is depicted in super-speed in Harlem 1929: Montage. Canciones closes with Lorca’s dancing off in relief from New York to Cuba in El poeta llega a la Habana.

Prometheus (2009)

It is undeniable that our century and millennium have not gotten off to an auspicious start, with September 11, 2001, our worldwide economic crisis, and all the ills the 20th century has foisted on the 21st. The ancient legend of Prometheus is a perfect metaphor for our time; in it the god is chained to a rock with a huge bird gnawing at his vitals, which are eternally renewed and eternally destroyed each day.

To much of the rest of the world the West is Prometheus, whose fire has fuelled the technological expansion of the last 500 years—electricity, steam, oil, the atom, and the computer. The sense of power we’ve all gained thereby has simultaneously pulled us away from religion, and freed of its restraint we in the West have brought ourselves to a level of technical sophistication unknown to any other era. We’ve wedged our way into almost-divine capability, unlike Prometheus who as a god was born with it—but at a price. We are now all Prometheus, chained to our rock of technological dependency; there is no question that our unprecedented advance has given the world enormous benefits we have no desire of relinquishing—nor should we—but we are enjoined to see the dark side of this bounty.

George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824) is, with Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake, among the first poets to speak of the new interest in science of his era. His poem Prometheus, coming as it does from the early industrial revolution, examines the antipodes we are haplessly hurled between constantly as well as the West’s altruism that has fuelled so much of the modern world’s predicament. When I was requested to write the present work for the same forces as Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, I felt the piano part would be ideal in portraying Prometheus’ eternal agony; my Prometheus is perhaps the antithesis of the joyous mood of the Beethoven but is not devoid of hope, particularly if it points us to begin to understand our situation. This piece is dedicated to that hope.

Prometheus’s eternal struggle—the opening piano solo evoking his chains—precedes the first stanza of Byron’s poem, in a contoured, unpitched recitation by the chorus with the piano. This is followed by an apocalyptic fanfare from the orchestra and the first statement, in falling brass triads, of the central motive of the piece; the piano returns, gently this time, with the rest of the orchestra, moving toward a climax. The subsequent solo piano passage depicting the giant bird’s attacks points toward the first movement’s quiet closing.

Movement II, marked in the score “lively; like sparks,” involves for the first time the entire ensemble of piano, chorus, and orchestra; in it Prometheus’s inescapable fate is shown. A short piano interlude derived from the work’s opening ensues, followed by the chorus and orchestra lamenting both Prometheus’s fate and Zeus’s regretful meting of his dire punishment by lightning bolts, portrayed by the piano. The movement ends on a tragic note, employing the earlier triadic motive in a quiet ending, which flows attacca into the final section.

The chorus, alone for the first time, intones “Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,” in antiphony with the brass. Here, again with piano and the rest of the orchestra, follows the meditation at the core of the poem: “Like thee, Man is in part divine, / A troubled stream from a pure source.” After the strife of the rest of Prometheus comes a peace derived from a greater understanding that I feel we will someday acquire and for which I pray fervently.

William Bolcom

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