May 21, 2023
David Del Tredici Laughs to the End
The Roger Shapiro Fund commissioned Herrick’s Oratorio for Mark Shapiro and Cantori New York, with thanks to Father Graeme Napier and St. John’s in the Village.
I cannot put my finger on what Joni Mitchell is getting at with her tone of voice in the song “Ladies of the Canyon”. There is a twinkle in her eye, but those have a wide range of explanations, interpretations.
I am also unable to put into words Del Tredici’s tone in Herrick’s Oratorio. His Last Rose of Summer (his Cygnus piece) is a riot. I need to revisit it. Herrick’s Oratorio is a riot. I was laughing out loud. But there are moments of quiet mystery that are like nothing else, but something like Schoenberg’s *Jacobsleiter*, or quiet, mysterious moments in Mahler symphonies.
Good — only a tincture of the German Expressionism that was once alluring to us here, but is not of this clime. Early Del Tredici has more than a tincture, but that background is what makes Del Tredici interesting and he told me flat out that his modernist chops gave him the tools for his subtle submersions. People complained about Melville’s German philosophy. America’s on-shoring of Expressionism is a process that’s still playing out. One contingent of critics would have us reject it entirely. What would they have said about Melville if they’d lived in the days before he was understood?
The tone of voice — he is reveling in the quaintness of Herrick, reveling in Herrick not as the Cavalier poet who is better than once thought. He revels in the other Herrick. Herrick was an Anglican cleric, Del Tredici, gay, is from a Catholic background. And in the final two poems—children’s graces—the text is set to the best-known Lutheran Hymn. (Composer Daron Hagen noted the irony when I spoke with him afterwards.) This religious mash-up is consistent with the reverently irreligious tone of the enterprise.
I now understand the thoughtful verbiage that Cantori circulated as the premiere approached. There was no mention of this work as a farewell to the world. I was curious about that; that is what I like about the group of texts. That farewell aspect is something to be usurped and that is what Del Tredici does, strongly. The text could be eaten up in 10 minutes of music, set differently. The repetitions are not obtrusive or annoying like a bad pop song, but musical transformations occur through repetitions and chopping up of the same bits of text and so the music overwhelms the text. The music transcends the text. Death is left lying flat on its back, utterly defeated by Del Tredici’s wit – “seeing and unseeing in the eye” (Wallace Stephen’s, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction) and a wording and unwording, like “Ring Around the Rosie” — Del Tredici short circuits anything elegiac in Herrick’s poems.
This is strong music. There is nothing sentimental. This tone cannot be called neo-Romantic. I claim Del Tredici for the post-maximalists. His tone is his stance, his seeing, and through the music he directs our seeing. We do not need to figure out the tone, we simply need to listen to Herrick’s Oratorio. Joni Mitchell and David Del Tredici take a strong stance and transmit that to us.
In US music, Herrick’s Oratorio brings to mind only one brother in stature. lf one is looking for something that stands alongside it, another incomparable and strong American choral work – Andrew Imbrie’s Adam, which sets Melville, among others. RSF helped support a recent performance of that great work, presented by the Riverside Symphony and the NY Virtuoso singers at a church in midtown about 5 years ago. I hope there are other works of this stature that I don’t know about.
Additional notes following Sunday’s performance, sketchy for now:
Beating the bushes last night and this morning brought some people to today’s performance. Be carteful what you wish for – some felt the work is prolix, self-indulgent. The world would be less rich but for Maestro Del Tredici’s indulgence. Prolix – see below.
Toward the end of first movement –
2-1; 2-1; 2-1
Just like “The Bells” from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. (William Byrd)
“I do believe”, repeated incessantly, makes us think of “the eternal yea” in Sartor Resartus, and then we wonder if Carlyle thought of Beethoven’s “es muß sein”…….
………In Del Tredici’s first movement – “I do believe” gradually becomes, “I believe nothing” – an enantiodromia. This process takes time and therefore, for me the movement is not at all too long. Let’s remember Abraham Lincoln and say its legs are long enough to reach the ground. Bach’s Chaconne: what makes the proportions into and out of the parallel major so right? I’ve thought hard about how he makes it right and in the end there is a qualititive sense that leaves us with no concern for reasons, just a sense of rightness. So with first movement of Herrick, are the proportions right for a composer trying to get across a sense of doubt about that endlessly repeated pharse, “I do believe”. I thought so, and leave it to you. And how long does it take to absorb the composer’s attitude towards Herrick?
I changed my mind. I was wrong, above – Maestro Del Tredici is not stooping down to Herrick. They may be kindred spirits.
I called the composer a moment ago. He was ok with the suggestion that “I believe nothing” is where he was going, and he also added that he was painting in music the anxiety of being between believing and not believing.
Like Mahler — clichés employed deliberately, but applied in radical ways, never straightforward. These cut both ways. Their familiarity can grab us, but their are subversion may cause some listeners to stumble at first. Ultimately, we love the subterfuges, re-routings, etc. They are a trove of riches and give listeners reason to expereience the piece again and again.
I’ve heard Del Tredici described as an “ironist”. I prefer “trickser”. I’m trying to think of another composer who functions like him on such a grand scale – Strauss’ Til Eulenspiegel; small scale – Velasquez.
The children’s graces – notice how the syllable count is a perfect match for the Lutheran hymn – Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott . Some of us are prone to dream puns and quodlibets and match lines of poems to songs that are in us.
Tone: a bit of Marx Brothers, Busby Berkeley, *Preston Sturges*.
– William Anderson
Watch - Video: