About this Recording
8.571204 - DRATTELL, D.: Sorrow is not Melancholy / Fire Dances / Lilith / The Fire Within / Syzygy (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Deborah Drattell (b. 1956)


The music of Deborah Drattell has been characterised by the New York Times as ‘vividly orchestrated and generally neo-Romantic, with a consistent undercurrent of dark introspection’. That description finds strong affirmation in the pieces presented on this recording. Drattel’s work belongs to a school of recent American composition sometimes referred to as ‘the new Romanticism’, a style that has been championed by Gerard Schwarz, who conducts all six pieces recorded here. While availing itself of certain modern harmonies and textures, the composer’s music is essentially lyrical and openly expressive of emotion. Those qualities are at least in part a reflection of Drattell’s Jewish upbringing. The composer has stated that ‘the earliest influence on me was synagogue music, the beautiful melodies sung by the cantor and the congregation’.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, where she still makes her home, Drattell trained as a violinist before turning to composition at age nineteen. She quickly made up for this relatively late start. ‘It became a passion,’ Drattell said of her early experience of writing music. ‘Once I started, I couldn’t stop.’

Early in her career, Drattell concentrated on instrumental music. Her orchestral compositions have been performed by the New York Philharmonic, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Seattle Symphony and other major American orchestras. Since the turn of the millennium, the composer has devoted herself principally to opera, creating several well-regarded works for the theatre. These include Nicholas and Alexandra—written expressly for Placido Domingo, who performed the title role in its premiere production—and two collaborations with the lauded American playwright Wendy Wasserstein as librettist.

Both the lyricism and emotionality of Drattell’s musical sensibility are evident in Sorrow is not Melancholy. Written in 1993, this piece is a threnody for string orchestra, a species of composition with a rich tradition in the twentieth century. While not revealing any particular sorrow, the work’s title suggests genuine grief rather than just temperamental despondency.

The initial moments of the piece establish a mournful tone, with cellos and basses tracing a lugubrious figure of just a few notes. This figure proceeds to repeat itself insistently, in the manner of an ostinato. As it does, violins and violas add, one by one, other phrases which, while distinct, are actually variations of the original cello-bass figure. The layering of these sad utterances creates a doleful sonic fabric during the first section of the composition’s single movement.

Ensuing developments bring expressions of the anger that accompanies grief: harsh chordal textures; short, stuttering phrases, as if the instruments were trying, but unable, to speak; sustained sonorities of unexpected gentleness; and a lyrical passage that transforms the opening material into soft, ethereal music. All this shapes the composition’s overall form into something of an arch. A gentle coda, perhaps intimating resignation, concludes the work.

The music of Drattell’s Fire Dances: Concerto for Clarinet stands in sharp contrast to the grieving of Sorrow is not Melancholy. Composed in 1986 for clarinetist David Shifrin, much of this piece is as energetic and colourfully scored as its subtitle suggests. The composer describes the work as ‘a ritualistic dance’, and her treatment of the clarinet exploits a wide range of colours and expression. In addition to the usual instrument, the soloist uses a high-pitched E-flat clarinet to lend an effective shrillness to the opening and closing portions of the concerto’s single movement. Between the kinetic music of these sections, which treat the same material, Drattell provides a languorous interlude that has the solo instrument singing over a quasi-oriental accompaniment of drones and percussion.

Lilith is a musical portrait of one of the most provocative figures of Jewish lore. According to Talmudic tradition, Lilith was the first wife of Adam. In other sources—especially the Zohar, the collection of Jewish mystical writings also called the Book of Splendor—she is identified as a female demon who steals infants and corrupts men through her seductive power. Recently Lilith has been embraced in popular culture as a feminist heroine, a woman who demanded equality with Adam and exulted in her sexuality and power.

Drattell wrote Lilith in 1988. (She later reworked and expanded the music into an opera.) The composer states that she was ‘fascinated by the tale of this female demon. The drama and excitement surrounding this symbol of sensual lust and sexual temptation became the basis for the piece’. Lilith unfolds in two movements. The first imagines Lilith as a seductress, initially lurking in the shadows suggested by the low-pitched sonorities that open the piece, then casting an enticing spell with a sinuous melody that slowly rises through the orchestra. The second movement transforms this melody into a robust dance. Here, Drattell observes, Lilith ‘appears in all her demonic glory’.

Something of the sound and spirit of Lilith informs The Fire Within, a concertante piece for flute and orchestra written for flutist Ransom Wilson. The similar characters of these works is not surprising, considering their chronologies. Drattell began writing The Fire Within in 1986 but set it aside after making only preliminary sketches. After composing Lilith, she returned to the work, completing it in 1989.

The Fire Within shares with Lilith melodic lines whose contours suggest a Middle-Eastern orientalism. That quality is evident from the work’s opening measures, where the flute rhapsodises over static harmonies, but it becomes especially pronounced in the slower-paced central episode. Here the soloist muses over repetitive figures that create drone accompaniments. Coloured with the sounds of drums and tambourine, this music conjures up desert tents and caravans even more vividly than the corresponding section of Drattell’s Clarinet Concerto. There follows a cadenza for the featured instrument, sometimes accompanied or echoed by the orchestra, and Drattell closes the work by transfiguring its principal melodic ideas—chiefly, short figures that circle repeatedly—into an energetic dance.

While The Fire Within seems a dream of the distant Levant, Syzygy was inspired by events close to home. This work’s title refers to the orbital conjunction or proximity of heavenly bodies, a phenomenon that can produce unusually high and unpredictable tides. Drattell experienced the power of such tides one day early in 1987, as she was about to begin work on a new orchestral piece. Arising early in her New York home, which stands just a block from the ocean, the composer found water filling the streets and nearly overflowing a nearby bay. This demonstration of the unpredictable potency of nature in the midst of one of the world’s major cities inevitably influenced the piece Drattell proceeded to compose.

While Drattell’s musical impulse is primarily lyrical, the music of Syzygy embodies certain formal elements based on the number three. The single-movement composition is comprised of three large panels, each of which is further divided into three subsections. Moreover, the piece uses three major thematic ideas. Drattell observes that the primacy of the number three in her compositional scheme represents the three celestial bodies most consequential to human existence: the moon, the earth and the sun.

The opening section of the piece, the composer explains, gives musical expression to tides and their destructive potential. After a few prefatory measures conveying raw physical force, the low strings sound the composition’s first theme over a relentless tolling of timpani and sustained wind sonorities. (Throughout the piece, Drattell adopts harmonic stasis as a means of suggesting nature’s elemental power.) This initial idea soon gives way to a second, as violins, trumpets and high woodwinds unleash a volley of sharp exchanges. A wide-stepping theme, introduced by horns and cellos, constitutes the third subject and provides the material for most of the central portion of Syzygy. The work’s conclusion brings these three thematic ideas together, the music accelerating and crescendoing to an all-but-terrifying climax.

Paul Schiavo

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