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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

The Rewaking (1991)
Text Writer
William Carlos Williams
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Solo Voices and 1-6 players
Year Composed
19 Minutes
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Programme Note
John Harbison The Rewaking (1991)
Composer note:

The Rewaking, commissioned by the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society for Benita Valente and the Julliard Quartet, is a setting of four poems by William Carlos Williams, all from his last years (1956-61). The texts are use by kind permission of New Directors.

My choice of text for vocal piece usually happens as follows: 1) the poems are inadvertently memorized, and won’t go away, 2) they begin to run parallel to a musical shape I have already had in mind, 3) they clarify and enlarge upon what began as a purely musical impulse.

This piece is neither a quartet with a vocal apotheosis, like Schoenberg’s 2nd, nor a song cycle with string accompaniment. It is, instead, a quintet in which the theme of “rewaking” from a winter of spirit is carried forward equally by all five performers.

In my Williams setting, Words from Paterson, I used a long text and moved through much of it syllabically, dramatically, to preserve Williams’ accents and narrative pacing. In The Rewaking the words are few, and are expanded by the melismas (in which there are many notes for one word), and by interludes and pauses.

Its fifteen-minute span begins with a string prelude, introducing many of the later vocal melodies. Two birds, the florid wood thrush and the obsessive woodpecker (“transcribed” at my Wisconsin farm) give rise to the “tragic winter thoughts.” Then amid the buffeting of a storm, “the lady speaks” of endurance and persistence. The final answer is not to “come to the end of striving” but to extend time “indefinitely,” which the final resolution seeks to do.

— John Harbison

I. The Woodthrush
II. To A Woodpecker
III. The Lady Speaks
IV. The Rewaking

Sample Pages

  • Ensemble
    Juilliard String Quartet
    Benita Valente, soprano
    Bridge Records:
  • Ensemble
    Lydian String Quartet
    Musica Omnia:
...highly charged... Composed in 1991, to texts of William Carlos Williams, "The Rewaking" captures the stormy weather of the poetic imagery in tormented vocal lines, but it renders the calm after the storm in melodic arcs of high, soft, sustained beauty...
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times,01/01/0001
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