Composition Department

FLIGHTS OF PASSAGE for solo piano (1998)

Peter Henderson, Piano

Flights of Passage [18:28]

I - Flights of Passage: "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing" [1:43] (attacca)
II - Flights of Passage: "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun" [4:25]

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III - Flights of Passage: "Dalliance of the Eagles" [1:02] (attacca)
IV - Flights of Passage: "The Mystic Trumpeter" [11:11]

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Flights of Passage for solo piano provides musical commentary on four poems by Walt Whitman: "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing"; "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun"; "The Dalliance of the Eagles"; and " The Mystic Trumpeter." The work was written for and dedicated to the marvelous pianist, James Dick. It was Mr. Dick who suggested the poems from Whitman's Leaves of Grass as the literary basis for the piece.

The composition is cast in two separate parts, each consisting of two unequal movements inspired by Whitman's verses. In both parts, the first movement can be viewed as an introduction to and integral facet of the second (and main) movement of the section, joining it without pause.

The two poems that provide the programmatic impetus for the first part (respectively, "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing" and "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun") are artful in their reiteration of visual images and in the rhythmic balance and symmetry of their lines. Thus, rather than merely reflect the poems' general moods and often sensual qualities, I sought to parallel musically their overall formal structures, organizing the compositional materials in each movement in ways that would complement Whitman's cyclical presentation of ideas.

In the first stanza of the poem, “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” Whitman expresses an initial longing for Nature's "primal sanities”; but in the second, he rejects those serene delights in favor of the turbulence of war-excited city streets. The structure of Flights’ second movement mirrors this antiphonal contrast between the poem’s stanzas. Because of the poem’s Transcendentalist references, it also seemed fitting to use as a sort of “idée fixe” for the movement the beginning phrase of "Thoreau," the final movement from Charles Ives' Concord Sonata for piano. Thoreau was, after all, the great man of Nature, one who, in Ives' own words, "sang of the submission to Nature, the religion of contemplation, and the freedom of simplicity..."

The opening portion of the second major section is a musical evocation of "The Dalliance of the Eagles," one of Whitman's most compressed and elemental works. The poem describes what Whitman assumed to be eagles mating in mid-air (actually, what he witnessed was an act called “taloning”). The text itself provides the best description of the music, for this third movement, this "gyrating wheel" of sound unfolding in “tumbling turning clustering loops,” constitutes the most obvious example of "tone-painting" in the set.

The final movement treats the long poem, "The Mystic Trumpeter." The poem’s theme is music’s inspiration. The first five stanzas summon forth the “immortal phantoms” of past musicians, particularly those from periods of history that are associated with idealized or chivalric love (the “amorous contact” in “Dalliance” here blossoms into something deeper). But in the sixth stanza, a contrary theme is introduced – the heralding of war, with its “deeds of ruthless brigands, rapine, murder.” In the final canto, however, after enduring “measureless shame and humiliation,” humankind is redeemed, “a reborn race appears,” “war, sorrow, suffering” are gone, and all is joy.

The music of “The Mystic Trumpeter” is a collage of sorts, incorporating quotations (some distorted, some literal) from four existing works: Charles Ives' short tone poem, The Unanswered Question; the sprawling piano piece Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus ("Twenty Meditations on the Child Jesus") by Olivier Messiaen; Music for the Magic Theatre by the late American composer, George Rochberg; and Reis Glorios ("Glorious King"), a song by the medieval troubadour, Guiraut de Bornelh. Each of these quoted compositions entails distinct parallels, either musical or literary, with Whitman's poem. Ives' The Unanswered Question also imagines a kind of mystic trumpeter, for it is a trumpet that repeatedly poses "the Perennial Question of Existence" in that composition's programmatic scenario. Rochberg's work evokes the "Magic Theater" of Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf (a novel that includes the line, "I saw Moses, whose hair recalled portraits of Walt Whitman"). The duality of human nature (animalistic vs. spiritual) expressed in the final cantos of “The Mystic Trumpeter” is also chronicled in Steppenwolf. More significantly, the central figure in the “Magic Theatre,” as in Whitman’s poem, is the presence of music (“music of the immortals”), music that is inherent in all life, nature and even memory.

Whitman's invocation of love and joy (in the fifth and eighth stanzas, respectively, of "The Mystic Trumpeter") resonates with Messiaen's vision of divine love in the last of the Vingt Regards. Whitman's phrases, "no other theme but love... the enclosing theme of all," have a musical complement in the "Thème d'amour" ("Love Theme") of Messiaen's piece, and the utopian vision of a humanity redeemed and joyful that is set forth in the final stanza of the poem finds kindred expression in Messiaen's "Triomphe d'amour et de joie" ("Triumph of Love and Joy"). The citations of these fragments from Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus in my own work are particularly appropriate in light of Whitman's view of himself as the "American Jesus" and the prophet of a new "American religion."

Less oblique, perhaps, than the aforementioned references is the appearance of an actual troubadour melody underscoring in a very concrete way Whitman's vision of medieval splendor in the fourth stanza of his poem. The text of this song by de Bornelh is a prayer beseeching God to guide the poet's companion safely home -- a beautiful metaphor for Whitman's life and work.

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