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Thea Musgrave

Publisher: Novello & Co

Narcissus (1987)
commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts for Wendy Rolfe, Harvey Sollberger, Patricia Spencer and Robert Willoughby
Work Notes
Instructions for the digital delay system set-up can be found here
Novello & Co Ltd
Solo Works (excluding keyboard)
Year Composed
14 Minutes
Alternate Orchestration
clarinet (with digital delay system)
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Programme Note
Thea Musgrave Narcissus (1987)
This work was written in 1986-87 for four American flautists, in response to a commission from the National Endowment for the Arts. The composer subsequently arranged the work for solo clarinet specially for F.Gerald Errante.

It is intended as a concert work but it can also be performed as a ballet for two dancers (Narcissus and his reflection).

The work follows the myth of Narcissus closely: the "live" flute taking the part of Narcissus and the echo effects produced by the digital delay system evoking Narcissus' reflection.

Perhaps the story is best summed up in the quotation from Hermann Melville's Moby Dick: "And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life...."

Synopsis (to be used if necessary)

Narcissus wanders through the forest, observing, enjoying...unselfconscious but self-absorbed. He sees a pool of water and then as he approaches, notices his reflection in the water. He is intrigued and then jumps back in fright. Once more he approaches... it is still there. Narcissus steps away from the pool to consider this phenomenon. Several times he approaches, the figure is always there watching him.

In the shimmering sunlight Narcissus seems to see this glorious and attractive being move in the rippling water. He is dazzled and slowly holds out his arms. To his amazement the figure responds. In awe and wonder Narcissus approaches closer and closer.

With a sudden change of mood Narcissus dances happily and playfully...the figure echoing him. But then Narcissus begins to question anxiously the lack of any independent response... Is he being mocked? He gets more and more agitated and finally in a fury he rushes headlong into the water to grapple with the figure. The waves surge up and Narcissus is drowned. There is a distant shimmering vision of Narcissus and his reflection. Then in the setting sun the vision disappears. The forest is empty and the pool lies undisturbed.

Instructions for the digital delay system set-up can be found at

  • Soloist(s)
    Patricia Spencer, flute
  • Soloist(s)
    F Gerald Errante, clarinet
  • Ensemble
    The Mühlfeld Ensemble / English Serenata
    Stephen Varcoe, baritone
    Clarinet Classics:
...powerfully descriptive...
Alan Cooper, The Herald,17/11/2008
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