Our chorus began rehearsal on the above contemporary piece based on a poem by Lord Byron, and composed by William Bolcom as commissioned by a consortium of 13 orchestras, foundations, and individuals. We will be the second group to perform the piece, scheduled for mid-November. I'll use this thread to track our progress.
At last week's rehearsal, we were advised that we will be working on parts separately for quite awhile, as our director believes it is better to learn each of our parts as a separate musical thread than to, at this point, try to figure out how they fit together.
Below is the program note by the composer.
PROMETHEUS is scored for two flutes (second takes piccolo), two oboes (second takes English horn), two B-flat clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns in F, three trumpets in C, two trombones and bass trombone, tuba, celesta, timpani, four percussionists, SATB chorus, solo piano and strings.
It is undeniable that our century and millennium have not gotten off to an auspicious start, with Sept. 11, 2001, our worldwide economic crisis, and all the ills the 20th century has foisted on the 21st. The ancient legend of Prometheus is a perfect metaphor for our time; in it the god is chained to a rock with a huge bird gnawing at his vitals, which are eternally renewed and eternally destroyed each day.
To much of the rest of the world the West is Prometheus, whose fire has fueled the technological expansion of the last 500 years – electricity, steam, oil, the atom, and the computer. The sense of power we’ve all gained thereby has simultaneously pulled us away from religion, and freed of its restraint, we in the West have brought ourselves to a level of technical sophistication unknown to any other era. We’ve wedged our way into almost-divine capability, unlike Prometheus who, as a god, was born with it – but at a price. We are now all Prometheus, chained to our rock of technological dependency; there is no question that our unprecedented advance has given the world enormous benefits we have no desire of relinquishing – nor should we – but we are enjoined to see the dark side of this bounty.
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) is, with Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake, among the first poets to speak of the new interest in science of his era. His poem, Prometheus, coming as it does from the early industrial revolution, examines the antipodes we are haplessly hurled between constantly as well as the West’s altruism that has fueled so much of the modern world’s predicament. When I was requested to write the present work for the same forces as Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, I felt the piano part would be ideal in portraying Prometheus’s eternal agony; my Prometheus is perhaps the antithesis of the joyous mood of the Beethoven (you will hear tonight) but is not devoid of hope, particularly if it points us to begin to understand our situation. This piece is dedicated to that hope.
The opening piano solo evoking Prometheus’s eternal struggle against his chains precedes the first stanza of Byron’s poem, in a contoured, unpitched recitation by the chorus with the piano. This is followed by an apocalyptic fanfare from the orchestra and the first statement, in falling brass triads, of the central motive of the piece; the piano returns, gently this time, with the rest of the orchestra, moving toward a climax. The subsequent solo piano passage depicting the giant bird’s attacks points toward the first movement’s quiet closing.
Movement II, marked in the score “lively; like sparks,” involves for the first time the entire ensemble of piano, chorus, and orchestra; in it Prometheus’s inescapable fate is shown. A short piano interlude derived from the work’s opening ensues, followed by the chorus and orchestra lamenting both Prometheus’s fate and Zeus’s regretful meting of his dire punishment by lightning bolts, portrayed by the piano. The movement ends on a tragic note, employing the earlier triadic motive in a quiet ending, which flows attacca into the final section.
The chorus, alone for the first time, intones “Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,” in antiphony with the brass. Here, again with piano and the rest of the orchestra, follows the meditation at the core of the poem: “Like thee, Man is in part divine, / A troubled stream from a pure source.” After the strife of the rest of Prometheus comes a peace derived from greater understanding that I feel we will someday acquire, and for which I pray fervently.
August 25, revised October 2, 2010