Composition Department

TABLEAUX FUNÈBRES for piano quintet (2003)

Véronique Mathieu and Stanislav Pronin, Violins
Sheldon Person, Viola
Alvin Wong, Cello
Timothy Best, Piano

Tableaux Funèbres [19:38]

Tableaux Funèbres: I [3.48]

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Tableaux Funèbres: II [4:28]

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Tableaux Funèbres: III [3:43]

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Tableaux Funèbres: IV [7:33]

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Tableaux Funèbres provides musical commentary on four haiku texts of rather dark imagery. A haiku is a very short, seventeen-syllable form of Japanese verse that is intended to evoke a wealth of thoughts and emotions. Because of its brevity, the haiku must depend for its effect on the power of suggestion and a deliberate elusiveness: the reader must “fill in” the outlines that have been drawn.

The music of Tableaux Funèbres seeks not only to reflect the moods suggested by the poetry, but also to amplify the implied meanings present in each haiku…and even to create additional associations. This is accomplished in part by the allusion to and quotation of passages from well-known vocal works that echo the spirit and content of the haiku selected.

The poems from which the piece gains its programmatic impetus are given below (in English translations by Harold G. Henderson), each followed by a brief description of the respective movement. Since each of the four haiku refers to a different time of the year, the movements they inspire are laid out in a “four-seasons” sequence, from summer to spring.

      I. Summer night:
           from cloud to cloud the moon
                is swift in flight.
                     Ranko (1726-99)

Upon first encountering this haiku, I thought immediately of the text of “Der Abschied,” the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s symphonic song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde, and in particular of the passage that reads, in translation:

      O see, like some tall ship of silver sails,
      The moon upon her course, through heaven’s blue sea.
      I feel the stirring of some soft south-wind
      Behind the darkling pine-wood.

Herein is described the death of the day, when the sun sets and the world falls asleep. Midway through my first movement, after disjointed references to other elements in Mahler’s song, there appears an altered quotation of the music that underscores this text. Now, however, Mahler’s orchestral fabric is reduced to a string quartet, and the lines emerge as if recalled in distant memory.

      II. Grave mound, shake too!
           My wailing voice –
                the autumn wind.
                     Basho (1644-1694)

The pitch materials for this movement are derived almost exclusively from permutations of the five-note row that serves as the basis of Igor Stravinsky’s In Memoriam Dylan Thomas for tenor, string quartet and four trombones. Stravinsky selected as text for the “Song” (the principal section of his work) the poem Dylan Thomas composed in memory of his father, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” In my own movement, there are two modified quotations of the “Song’s” brief refrain, that portion of Stravinsky’s music written to the words, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

      III. Night; and once again,
           while I wait for you, cold wind
                turns into rain.
                     Shiki (1867-1902)

The third movement draws its inspiration from “Der Doppelgänger,” the last of the “Heine Lieder” that comprise the second part of Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Schwanengesang (Swan Song). In Heine’s poem, the narrator stands before the house where his lost love once lived and is horrified when he imagines that he sees a stranger in the moonlight whose face reflects his own pain. Although Schubert’s haunting setting of the poem provides the structural and emotional basis of my movement, the only literal reference to the original song is the appearance of the recurring four-note bass pattern in the piano.

      IV. The beginning of spring:
           thoughts come – and there is loneliness;
                the autumn dusk is here.

The final movement is in two parts, the division corresponding to the colon in the haiku above. Spring is normally a time for happiness and renewal. For me, one of the greatest poetic and musical celebrations of spring is Richard Strauss’ “Frühling,” the first number in his valedictory work, the Four Last Songs. The final cadential chords of the orchestral accompaniment to the Strauss song are adapted here as a sort of motto in the first section of this movement.

By way of transition to the contrasting second part, I make reference to various elements from the opening movement of Tableaux. For the concluding section itself, the juxtaposition of the words “loneliness” and “autumn” brought thoughts again of a passage from Das Lied von der Erde, this time from the second of the six songs, whose individual title is “Der Einsame im Herbst” (“The Lonely One in Autumn”):

      O love’s warm sunshine, have you gone forever
      And will my burning tears be never dried?

As the climax for this movement (and, indeed, for the entire work), Mahler’s setting of these poignant words erupts suddenly from the texture of my own music. Thus, with the quotation of a fragment from “Der Abschied” in the first movement of Tableaux, Mahler’s music frames mine and brings to full circle the seasonal changes of the haiku.

Tableaux Funèbres was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Louisville in celebration of its 50th Anniversary and is dedicated to the memory of Nelson Keyes. The revised version of the work was premiered in Louisville on April 25, 2004 by Ursula Oppens and the Pacifica String Quartet.

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