Walden, opus 123 (2008) for tenor and octet: flute, clarinet, string quintet and piano.

Thomas Oboe Lee

About this work:

Words by Henry David Thoreau

Commissioned by The Lexington Symphony Chamber Players

Premiere performance:

First Parish in Lexington, Unitarian Universalist Church

Lexington, Massachusetts

June 13, 2008

Ray Bauwens, tenor

Danielle Boudrot, flute,

Bill Kirkley, clarinet

Elizabeth Whitfield, violin

Randy Miller, violin

Lisa Kempskie, viola

Nathaniel Lathrop, cello

Scott Fitzsimmons, double bass

Paul Carlson, piano

Program note:

I met Ray Bauwens in the summer of 2007 when he was cast as Arthur Inman in a production of my chamber opera “The Inman Diaries.” He was truly the star of the show and made an incredible and unforgettable impression!

Afterwards I told Ray I’d like to write a song cycle for him. He was very enthusiastic about the idea.

In 1991 I was commissioned by the Thoreau Society to write a work celebrating Henry David Thoreau’s writings and poetry.

For Ray I wanted to revisit Thoreau’s work, but this time concentrating only on texts from his immortal book, WALDEN.

WALDEN is a huge opus. I downloaded an audio version of the book; the actor took 15 hours to read the whole thing. 

Liz Whitfield, violinist with the Lexington Symphony Chamber Players, said I should keep the length of the work between 25 and 30 minutes. Therefore, my Walden, opus 123 touches upon only a few aspects of the infamous book … a paragraph here, and a paragraph there.

The work, in seven movements – four songs plus three instrumental interludes in between, is scored for lyric tenor and octet: flute, clarinet, string quintet and piano.

I. Economy. “When I wrote the following pages, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from my neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts. There I lived two years and two months. Near the end of March 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It was a pleasant hillside where I worked, covered with pine-woods, through which I looked out on the pond. The ice on the pond was not yet dissolved, though there were some open spaces, and it was all dark-colored and saturated with water. They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man’s discontent was thawing as well as the earth, and life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself. By the middle of April my house was framed and ready for the raising. I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south, down through sumach and blackberry roots, and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet square by seven deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze in any winter. The sides were left shelving, and not stoned; but the sun having never shone on them, the sand still keeps its place. It was but two hour’s work. I took particular pleasure in this breaking of ground, for in almost all latitudes men dig into the earth for an equable temperature. At length, in the beginning of May, I set up the frame of my house. I began to occupy my house on the 4th of July, as soon as it was boarded and roofed. Before winter I built a chimney, and shingled the sides of my house, which were already impervious to rain. I have thus a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap-doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite. The exact cost of my house, paying the usual price for such materials as I used, but not counting the work, all of which was done by myself, was as follows: Boards $8 03 ½, mostly shanty boards Refuse shingles for roof and sides $4 00 Laths $1 25 Two second-hand windows with glass $2 43 One thousand old bricks $4 00 Two casks of lime $2 40 That was high. Hair $0 31 More than I needed. Mantle-tree iron $0 15 Nails $3 90 Hinges and screws $0 14 Latch $0 10 Chalk $0 01 Transportation $1 40 I carried a good part on my back. In all $28 12 ½”

II. Sounds. First instrumental interlude: Thoreau describes the sounds around the pond – both natural and man-made. He writes, “The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell … The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk … ”

III. Solitude. “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walked along the stony shore of the pond in my shirtsleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whip-poor-will is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Though it is now dark, the wind still blows and roars in the wood, the waves still dash, and some creatures lull the rest with their notes. The repose is never complete. The wildest animals do not repose, but seek their prey now; the fox, the skunk, the rabbit, now roam the fields and woods without fear. They are Nature’s watchmen, --- links which connect the days of animated life.”

IV. The Village. Second instrumental interlude: Thoreau writes, “Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs.” “It was very pleasant, when I stayed in town, to launch myself into the night, especially if it was dark and tempestuous, and set sail from some bright village parlor or lecture room, … ”

V. Brute Neighbors. “I was witness to events of a less peaceful character. One day when I went out to my wood pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but bellum, a war between two races of ants; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other. I watched a couple that were fast locked in each other’s embrace, in a little sunny valley amid the chips, now at noonday prepared to fight till the sun went down, or life went out. They fought with more pertinacity than bulldogs. Neither manifested the least disposition to retreat. It was evident that their battle-cry was “Conquer or die.” In the meanwhile there came along a single red ant on the hillside of this valley, evidently full of excitement. He saw this unequal combat from afar, --- for the blacks were nearly twice the size of the reds, --- he drew near with rapid pace till he stood on his guard within half an inch of the combatants; then, watching his opportunity, he sprang upon the black warrior, and commenced his operation near the root of his right fore legs; and so there were three united for life, as if a new kind of attraction had been invented which put all other locks and cements to shame. I should not have wondered by this time to find that they had their respective musical bands stationed on some eminent chip, and playing their national airs the while, to excite the slow and cheer the dying combatants. I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference. And certainly there is not the fight recorded in Concord history, at least, if in the history of America, that will bear a moment’s comparison with this, whether for the numbers engaged in it, or for the patriotism and heroism displayed.”

VI. The Pond in Winter. Third instrumental interlude: Thoreau writes, “Ah, the pickerel of Walden! when I see them lying on the ice, or in the well which the fisherman cuts in the ice, making a little hole to admit the water. I am always surprised by their rare beauty, as if they were fabulous fishes, they are so foreign to the streets, even to the woods, foreign as Arabia to our Concord life. They possess a quite dazzling and transcendent beauty which separates them by a wide interval from cadaverous cod and haddock whose fame is trumpeted in our streets. They are not green like the pines, nor gray like the stones, nor blue like the sky; but they have, to my eyes, if possible, yet rarer colors, like flowers and precious stones, as if they were pearls, the animalized nuclei or crystal of the Walden water. They, of course, are Walden all over and all through; are themselves small Waldens in the animal kingdom, Waldenses.“

VII. Conclusion. “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life [which] he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, liberal, and more universal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him, or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put a foundation under them.”

Year composed: 2008
Duration: 00:31:00
Ensemble type: Unspecified Instrument(s)
Instrumentation: 1 Flute, 1 Clarinet, 1 Piano, 2 Violin, 1 Viola, 1 Cello, 1 Double bass, 1 Tenor
Instrumentation notes: Lyric tenor and octet

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