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Milton Babbitt

Publisher: AMP

Philomel (1964)
Text Writer
John Hollander
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Electronic Works
Year Composed
19 Minutes
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Programme Note
Milton Babbitt Philomel (1964)

Composer Note:
The story of Philomel, the nightingale, appears in Ovid’s metamorphoses. Philomel is the sister of Procne, whose husband, Tereus, is King of Thrace. Tereus rapes and imprisons his sister-in-law, having cut out her tongue to silence her. From her captivity Philomel sends a garment to Procne, into which she has woven images of her doleful story. As a hideous revenge on her husband, Procne kills her young son, cooks his corpse, and serves it to Tereus, informing him as he eats of what she has done. Fleeing from Tereus, Procne releases her sister, and together they are pursued through the woods by the murderously enraged Tereus. They are saved by the gods, who transform Procne into the swallow, Tereus into the hoopoe, and Philomel, torn and mute, into the nightingale. From that time the nightingale has sung all night of her tragedy, becoming allegorically the poet, who figuratively out of pain and literally out of darkness transcends suffering.

Philomel is a melodramatic representation of Philomel at the moment of her metamorphosis, when she discovers her restored voice among the threatening sounds of the forest. Gradually achieving coherence, she echoes the birds with her song, and the world responds with the final words of her questions. Finally she sings in a strophic aria of the redemption of her now fully evolved voice and celebrates her flight, as in her refrain:

    Now I range
    thrashing, through
    the woods of Thrace.

— Milton Babbitt

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