A Musical Setting of Amy Lowell’s poem: Stravinsky’s Three Pieces “Grotesques”, for String Quartet
Dominick DiOrio "Stravinsky Refracted" (2015)
Dominick DiOrio (b. 1984)
"Stravinsky Refracted" (2015) * World premiere performance
Dominick DiOrio, conductor
Tabitha Burchett, soprano; Michael Linert, countertenor
Christopher Sokolowski, tenor; Erik Krohg, baritone
The Well-Tempered Quartet
Brent Te Velde, organ
Marco Schirripa and Andrew Riley, percussion
Jamie Tagg, recording engineer and producer
The commissioning of this work by NOTUS: IU Contemporary Vocal Ensemble was made possible by the support of the Ann Stookey Fund for New Music
Before discussing my work, it might be helpful to understand Amy Lowell’s fascination with Stravinsky and his music. We turn to a quotation from Regina Schober’s article, “Amy Lowell’s Peasant Dance” inAmerican Studies, Vol. 53, No. 2, (2008):
“Amy Lowell wrote the poem Stravinsky’s Three Pieces ‘Grotesques’, for String Quartet shortly after hearing the music in a concert on December 2, 1915. The Flonzaley Quartet played the contemporary pieces from a manuscript in Jordan Hall, Boston after the recital of a Pierrot plot, obviously meant as a program to the pieces. Only a few days later, on December 11, 1915, did Lowell finish the poem, which was then published in Men, Women, and Ghosts in 1916. Samuel Foster Damon recalls Lowell’s great enthusiasm for the music: ‘The vitality and poignancy of the music, however, appealed instantly to Miss Lowell; by December 11, she was informing everybody that she had written one of her best poems about the ‘Three Pieces’ or ‘Grotesques,’ and that no editor could ever understand the poem unless he also understood Stravinsky’.”
Despite the implied “Grotesque”-ness of Lowell’s title, there is no negative connotation here. In fact, Lowell had nothing but admiration for Stravinsky’s music. Schober goes on to argue that Lowell helped to take elements of Stravinsky’s Russian folklorist idiom (as exemplified in Three Pieces) and transform them into the then-in-vogue American modernist concept of primitivism.
My aim has been a further musical transformation. While Lowell’s poem was influenced by the sound qualities and folklorist gestures of Stravinsky’s pieces, I wish to complete the circle and return these words to music. I have taken cues from both of these artists. I use much of the original musical content of Stravinsky’s pieces (motives, pitch content, entire phrases verbatim), but I also add further dimensions of timbral interest and color in scoring for instruments suggested by Lowell’s poem: the drums, organ, and voices in my setting are all suggested by her text; they complement the original quartet of strings given by Stravinsky.
I have been “actively quoting” music of older composers now since 2008, most recently in vocal works using fragments of Purcell, Brahms, Britten, and Hildegard. Stravinsky Refracted stands as the next work in this long creative experiment, and I do believe it is the best one yet. It is a undoubtedly a work of my own imagination, infused with my peculiar penchant for rhythmic irregularity and crescendi of increasing thicknesses, as well as declamatory vocal writing with an easily intelligible setting of the text. It is also undoubtedly a work indebted to the poetry of Igor Stravinsky and the music of Amy Lowell, as each artist would most assuredly attest.
It is with immense gratitude that I offer public thanks to the Ann Stookey Fund for New Music and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, without whose support the creation and performance of this work would have never been possible.
While the poem is divided into three “movements”, the flow of the musical work should be continuous, with only natural pauses as appropriate to the music, and no “dropping” of the musical intent. The fermata at m. 224 should be held, not relaxed.
It is also highly recommended that a performance of Stravinsky’s Trois pieces pour quatour à cordes, (1914) immediately precede the performance of this new work, so the listener might hear Stravinsky’s original music before hearing my refraction.
Stravinsky’s Three Pieces “Grotesques”, for String Quartet
by Amy Lowell, Men, Women, and Ghosts (1916)
Thin-voiced, nasal pipes
Drawing sound out and out
Until it is a screeching thread,
Sharp and cutting, sharp and cutting,
Bump! Bump! Tong-ti-bump!
There are drums here,
And wooden shoes beating the round, grey stones
Of the market-place.
Sabots slapping the worn, old stones,
And a shaking and cracking of dancing bones;
Clumsy and hard they are,
Losing half a beat
Because the stones are slippery.
Bump-e-ty-tong! Whee-e-e! Tong!
The thin Spring leaves
Shake to the banging of shoes.
Shoes beat, slap,
And the nasal pipes squeal with their pigs' voices,
Little pigs' voices
Weaving among the dancers,
A fine white thread
Linking up the dancers.
Bang! Bump! Tong!
Delirium flapping its thigh-bones;
Red, blue, yellow,
Drunkenness steaming in colours;
Red, yellow, blue,
Colours and flesh weaving together,
In and out, with the dance,
Coarse stuffs and hot flesh weaving together.
Pigs' cries white and tenuous,
White and painful,
Pale violin music whiffs across the moon,
A pale smoke of violin music blows over the moon,
Cherry petals fall and flutter,
And the white Pierrot,
Wreathed in the smoke of the violins,
Splashed with cherry petals falling, falling,
Claws a grave for himself in the fresh earth
With his finger-nails.
An organ growls in the heavy roof-groins of a church,
It wheezes and coughs.
The nave is blue with incense,
Snaking over the heads of the chanting priests.
'Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine';
The priests whine their bastard Latin
And the censers swing and click.
The priests walk endlessly
Round and round,
Droning their Latin
Off the key.
The organ crashes out in a flaring chord,
And the priests hitch their chant up half a tone.
'Dies illa, dies irae,
Calamitatis et miseriae,
Dies magna et amara valde.'
A wind rattles the leaded windows.
The little pear-shaped candle flames leap and flutter,
'Dies illa, dies irae;'
The swaying smoke drifts over the altar,
'Calamitatis et miseriae;'
The shuffling priests sprinkle holy water,
'Dies magna et amara valde;'
And there is a stark stillness in the midst of them
Stretched upon a bier.
His ears are stone to the organ,
His eyes are flint to the candles,
His body is ice to the water.
Whine, shuffle, genuflect,
He will always be as rigid as he is now
Until he crumbles away in a dust heap.
'Lacrymosa dies illa,
Qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.'
Above the grey pillars the roof is in darkness.