My father moved through dooms of love (2006-7)

for SATB chorus, solo violin, and piano

From an interview by Jeff Lunden at the Vocal Area network:

I'm something of a fanatic about speech rhythms, and especially the rhythms of poetry. My mother says that when I was a toddler I would listen to her read poetry as long as she'd indulge me. I feel I can set any text whose words have a certain, indefinable rhythmic quality, and if they don't have it I can't do it. Cummings' poetry often has a wonderful rough, masculine, but regular rhythm to it. I loved the rhythm of "my father moved through dooms of love" before I even thought about what it meant, and it was about his father. I've always associated my father with choral music, because he loved it and sang it, and my Transcendental Sonnets for chorus and orchestra is dedicated to him, and begins with the repeated word "father." My father was dying as I started writing my father moved through dooms of love -- his Alzheimer's-related symptoms had just taken a bad turn for the worse -- and he was naturally much on my mind. Not until I had already set several lines of the poem, though, just to get a feel for it, did I do some research and find that it was an early poem for Cummings (1926), written after the violent death of his own father in a railway accident.

Some of the poem's imagery does apply to my own father: "his anger was as right as rain / his pity was as green as grain." Other lines I wish were more true of me: "if every friend became his foe / he'd laugh and build a world with snow." In its sometimes deliberately mystifying way, the poem paints a picture of a diverse and complex human being who manages to maintain and joyously assert his humanity in a rotten, despicable world, without ever being brought down or turned timid or cynical or cruel by it. The final lines -- "because my Father lived his soul / love is the whole and more than all" -- contain depths I don't even want to speculate about. I set them almost like Gregorian chant....

The addition of the violin I thought was a happy inspiration. I wanted it to wordlessly symbolize the father of the text (I kept visualizing a big, tall, barrel-chested male violinist soaring on a comparatively diminutive violin). A vocal soloist would have made this particular text too personal, maybe even maudlin, but I wanted some element to distinguish the work from the standard choir-and-piano format. I've never heard of another piece for choir and piano with violin soloist, but all those Morton Feldman pieces for chorus or chamber orchestra with viola probably steered me in that direction.

...The real surprise for this piece was that it is largely, though not consistently, couched in the octatonic (or "diminished") scale, the scale of alternating whole-steps and half-steps (B-flat, B, C#, D, E, F, G, A-flat).... I had never used the octatonic scale simply because in college one analyzes so much music that uses it. However, I have recently found myself falling into it by accident, as I did here; I began writing the piece just experimentally, and realized by page two that I was waxing octatonic, and might as well continue. It's a good scale for writing nice choral triads related by heavy chromaticism. It offers wide contrasts between bright happiness ("and should some why completely weep") and creepy darkness ("maggoty minus and dumb death").

- Kyle Gann

Duration: 12 minutes

PDF score here.

Recording of the March 10, 2007 premiere here; James Bagwell conducting the Dessoff Choir, with violinist Rachel Handman and pianist Steven Ryan.

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