The Masters on the Movies
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Program Notes for The Masters on the Movies
The Masters on the Movies: Three dramatic fantasies for a cappella chorus was commissioned by the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Cantori, Robert Cowles, director, and is based on three poems from Richard Howard’s “The Masters on the Movies,” five imaginary discourses (Mr. Howard calls them “outrageous ventriloquisms”) on classic movies by literary masters. The entire series, with “Woman of the Year” and “King Kong,” can be found in his Talking Cures (Turtle Point Press, 2002).
The three masters—Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Willa Cather—are presented as soloists (tenor, bass, and soprano respectively), their voices often echoed or amplified by the chorus. And since what the masters have to say will likely give more pleasure to the listener familiar with the movies, I have strategically assigned lines of dialogue to members of the chorus who, in some sense, are asked to “play” the movie characters. These lines are intended to jog the memory of a listener who has seen these movies and to tell the movie’s story in as few words as possible to those who have not. While it should be easy to distinguish the poetry from the dialogue, I have nonetheless imposed a convention: lines of dialogue are spoken, and every word of Mr. Howard’s poetry is sung. The exceptions are the choral “Shangri-La’s” in Lost Horizon and Queen Christina’s arioso “I have been memorizing the room” which are not words from Mr. Howard’s poems, but are sung nevertheless.
Since my work for voices is often shaped as much by the sound of a word as by its meaning, and given the immensely rich talents of Cantori, I have assigned an unusually complex role to the chorus. They must not just incorporate the personalities of the masters and the movie characters, it is up to them to convey, with words and the sound of words, such non-semantic entities as state of mind, foreboding, sense of time, or memory. In short, they take on the role of the orchestra in an opera; without them the characters are vacant, the drama non-existent.
It is 1885, the year Henry James published The Bostonians, his send-up of Boston society women, and Howard imagines what James might have made of the movie Now, Voyager—in particular the frumpy Miss Charlotte Vale, a depressed Boston Brahmin who, under Dr. Jaquith’s care, escapes her domineering mother, embarks on a Caribbean cruise and meets the love of her life, the charming, handsome—and married—Jerry Durrance. The trip is a success: Charlotte is “metamorphosed” from ugly duckling to a “swan, odiferous with erotic reminiscence.” (Musically, the metamorphosis is depicted by a chain of suspensions, beginning in one key and ending in another.) What “chiefly glows” for James is that Charlotte is now a “Changed Woman,” who
“understands when she is spoken to.” Charlotte not only recites from Whitman (as the good doctor taught her): “Now, Voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find,” but obeys Whitman’s imperative and begins to take charge of her own life. As James concludes: “Even if, my dear, we don’t reach the sun, we will at least have been up in a balloon.”
Joseph Conrad’s dark tale of political intrigue The Secret Agent was published in 1907, and Howard imagines how Conrad might have reacted to the 1937 Frank Capra classic Lost Horizon. In The Secret Agent an innocent boy, Stevie, is blown to bits by an anarchist’s bomb, so Conrad will have none of Shangri-La or its population of utopianists (the choral introduction). His disgust even spills over to his outright condemnation of movies in general (“… offering nothing more in the way of art than a flickering distraction to dolts condemned to sit in darkness, mental life utterly suspended, watching patterns of pretense gibber and squeak before them.”) Except, that is, for the one scene where seemingly young, pretty Maria leaves Shangri-La and “becomes before your eyes a ruined hag.” Conrad contemplates how “instantaneous and incredible that human matter could accomplish such disintegration without passing through long lasting pangs of inconceivable agony.” (This musical passage also depicts a transformation, though not the gradually shifting tonal metamorphosis of Charlotte in “Now,Voyager,” but one more abrupt and dissonant.) Maria, like Stevie, has become a metaphor for life itself: we’re here one moment and gone the next. Life is lived in an instant. Or as Conrad concludes: “… ages of pain can be lived between two blinks of an eye.”
In 1934 a second movie version of Willa Cather’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel A Lost Lady was released (the first was made ten years earlier) and Cather, after seeing it, is reputed to have forbidden any more sale of her work to Hollywood. The movie Queen Christina tells the tale, effective in its own terms, of a queen whose love for a foreigner is so unpopular with her xenophobic subjects that she is forced to abdicate. But poet Howard creates a Cather impatient with dumbed-down screenplays, and her warm reaction to arguably Garbo’s best performance as the Swedish queen is overpowered by her annoyance that the movie avoids all matters of Christina’s impressive accomplishments, such as her friendship with Descartes, or any of her astute political decisions. (Cather’s line “I am and ever shall be emulous of the young queen’s embracing a practice so much in accord with her aspirations and her accomplishments” becomes the central and recurring musical motive of the piece.) Cather, who confesses that her “own imaginative knowledge is of loss, the consequent action of what I write is of loss as well,” finds a “grain of truth in one moment:” the movie’s most famous scene where Garbo, eyes closed and arms stretched out as if she were blind, tries to memorize the quaint, rustic room she has shared with her doomed lover Don Antonio.
Year composed: 2005
Ensemble type: Chorus, with or without Solo Voices:Chorus, Unaccompanied
Instrumentation: 6 S,1 S soloist(s), 6 A, 6 T,1 T soloist(s), 6 B,1 B soloist(s), ,4 Unspecified choral part(s) soloist(s)
Instrumentation notes: a cappella chorus with 3 soloists (S,T,B), with at least 4 members assigned to speaking/acting roles (2 men, 2 women)