Classical Walpurgis Night
About this work:
Classical Walpurgis Night is a symphonic poem inspired by lesser-known passages from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. The composition is not a typical Faust-piece, in that it has little to do with the characters of Faust or Mephistopheles, at least directly. Instead, the actions and thoughts of an obscure character, named Homunculus, have been extracted from the text and adapted to form an account of his quest to come into being.
The tale of Homunculus is a miniature epic embedded in the larger drama of the second part of Goethe’s Faust. Homunculus is created in Part II, Act II (Laboratory scene) of Faust, and after a sequence of fantastic episodes, he returns to the elements to be reborn. In these episodes, Goethe examines various modes of creation, using Homunculus as the vehicle for discussion.
Classical Walpurgis Night is not explicitly a recreation of the complex Homunculus narrative in Goethe’s work. It is, rather, the composer’s reaction to the synthesis of creative processes explored vis-à-vis the character of Homunculus—physical, chemical, sexual, psychological, mythological, and theological.
There are four sections (not necessarily divided in this way by Goethe) of the Homunculus story that are central to Classical Walpurgis Night. The first is the primary coming into being of Homunculus. The essence of Homunculus was created in a laboratory, coaxed to life from within a primordial alembic. After the alchemist’s flash of “inspiration” that opens the piece, disorder and unfocused energy permeate the musical fabric. Periodically, bits of recognizable material emerge from the background. The music builds through a process of accretion until Homunculus coalesces into a discrete entity. He has no body, but possesses a brilliant mind. Like most people, however, he seeks what he does not have—in his case, corporeal substance.
What follows in the text, after the initial “birth” of Homunculus, is an account of his quest for a body; his quest to become. Prior to embarking on that journey, Homunculus peers into the sleeping Faust’s mind, and relates to Mephistopheles a dream that Faust is having; this constitutes the second scene of critical importance to Classical Walpurgis Night. Faust’s dream is of the act of sexual creation, and the coupling of the mythical and the mortal—specifically, Faust is dreaming of Leda’s impregnation by Zeus, who accomplished the task while in the form of a swan. The music in this section, although not explicitly programmatic, does follow the contours of the dream as seen by the voyeuristic Homunculus. The musical materials of Homunculus appear in expanded forms to implicate him in the seduction and rape of Leda. Goethe does not allow Homunculus to view the actual rape, however, emphasizing the unknowable aspects of creation. A veil descends to hide the scene—but Homunculus knows enough to fill in the blanks. Perhaps life is possible only through violence?
The third section of the Homunculus chronicle takes him to a place in time and space called “Classical Walpurgis Night.” The part of the text bearing this name is one of the most difficult segments of Goethe’s Faust to comprehend. It is allegorically complex, combining many disparate elements of Greek mythology and Greco-Roman history (the “Classical”) with their Nordic/Germanic counterparts (the “Walpurgisnacht”—the May Day witches’ Sabbath). The key passages in the “Classical Walpurgis Night” scenes, relevant to this musical encounter with the text, focus on Homunculus’s search for the origins of life through interviews with historical and mythological characters. This search for primal knowledge demonstrates Homunculus’ most Faustian trait.
Two theories of creation are discussed in conversation with the philosophers Anaxagoras and Thales. Anaxagoras advocates a violent, volcanic theory of creation (which Homunculus initially favors), while Thales promotes a placid, water-based creation theory. After weighing the relative merits of these theories and witnessing the destructive tendencies of volcanism, Homunculus suspects that water is the true source of life. The music in this section of Classical Walpurgis Night exhibits a competition between omnipresent waves of murky string sounds, and sharp outbursts from the rest of the orchestra. These vie for dominance until the string waves finally engulf the other material and assimilate it, now exhibiting features of both creation theories.
While all of this is happening, another process is unfolding that is related to the final section of the drama central to Classical Walpurgis Night. Homunculus befriends Proteus, the shape-shifter, whom Homunculus accompanies on his final drive to become. The Protean principle of variation governs the final development of the musical material of Homunculus. The transformation of Homunculus becomes more apparent in the music and in the story as he travels with Proteus. Goethe concludes the tale of Homunculus by combining many of the modes of creation already explored into a single climactic scene. In the distance, Homunculus sees the beautiful Galatea riding atop the shell of Aphrodite. The growing excitement of Homunculus is evident to onlookers, as his test tube pulses with light, ever increasing in intensity. Finally, Homunculus shatters his glass vessel against the shell of Aphrodite, and his essence is spilled into the sea, allowing the possibility of his rebirth. The journey of Homunculus began in the laboratory, and is ultimately renewed in the ocean, nature’s “test tube.”
Year composed: 2004
Ensemble type: Orchestra:Standard Orchestra
Instrumentation: 3 Flute, 3 Oboe, 3 Clarinet, 2 Bassoon, 1 Contrabassoon, 4 Horn in F, 3 Trumpet, 3 Trombone, 1 Tuba, 1 Timpani, 3 Percussion (General), 1 Piano, 1 Strings (General), 1 Harp
Instrumentation notes: 3d2.3d1.3d2.3 - 4.3.3d1.1 - timp.3perc.hp.pno/cel - strings