Ordinarily, when composing a piece, first I plan its shape. But I'd already completed half of A Dylan Thomas Trilogy
before I realized what it should be a memory play in the form of an oratorio and it was only 40 years after I first encountered Thomas's poetry that I completed it. It has been a long and serendipitous journey. Thomas's poems have reappeared in my life precisely when they have felt most autobiographical, and just when I needed to write exactly the music they have evoked.
I first encountered Dylan Thomas' work in 1959, my last undergraduate year at Columbia College. It was a revelation. Both the sound and structures of Thomas's words were astonishingly musical. Not by accident, either: "What the words meant was of secondary importance; what matters was the sound of them...these words were as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments," he wrote in his Poetic Manifesto
of 1951. I was irresistibly drawn to translate his music into mine.
One poem captivated me: Fern Hill
, about the poet's "young and easy" summers at his family's farm of the same name. I wanted to write this work as a gift for my high-school music teacher, Mrs. Bella Tillis, who first encouraged my musical ambitions. She introduced Fern Hill
with piano accompanying her (and, once, my) school choir.
is a blithe poem, yet touched by darkness; time finally holds the poet "green and dying," but the poem itself, formally just an ABA song extended into a wide arch, sings joyously of youth and its keen perceptions. I set it for mezzo-soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra, aiming to match the forthright lyricism of the text. (The direction "with simplicity" is everywhere in the printed score.)
Ten years went by. In 1969, Charles Wadsworth of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center asked for a work for its opening season. Again I turned to Thomas. His feelings in Poem in October
(inspired by his turning 30) mirrored my own thoughts at arriving at that age.
had likened the safety of childhood to the verdant Welsh landscape. The sea, often in Thomas an image of a life-death force, appeared only in the poem's last line, "though I sang in my chains like the sea." Poem in October
begins in Thomas's seafront town: the poet, marking his birthday, climbs to a high hill, where he reflects on his youth and mulls his future. Now the narrating voice was a tenor, bereft of the support of a chorus, and enmeshed in the introspective, acerbic textures of flute, oboe, clarinet, string quartet and harpsichord. And the cradling regular meters, the reassuring tonal imagery of Fern Hill
yielded to spontaneously inflected rhythms and to harmony that stretched outside my earlier tonal palette.
Five more years passed. Yet 1975 found me as disappointed with my life as with my previous musical thinking. I was questioning both the way I composed (why did I limit myself to standard notation? to received forms? to forced choice among "isms"?) and the way I lived (why has so much of what I wanted brought me so little joy?)
A return to Thomas revealed that my life crises continued to unfold in eerie synchronicity with his own. I discovered the terrifying Poem on His Birthday
, in which his 35th year is not celebrated but "spurned." "Poem on His Birthday" distorts the "lamb-white days" of Fern Hill
to the grotesqueries of "herons who "walk in their shroud." Poem in October
's sparkling ocean becomes a gull-haunted river Styx. Yet even as the poet "sails out to die" (Thomas himself died at 39), he exults that "the closer I move to death...the louder the sun blooms."
Only then did I realize that I'd been writing memory play on Thomas's poetry for 20 years, of which this would be the final and most difficult act. I realized that the bel canto
vocalism of the previous pieces couldn't contain this character's midlife madness. I needed the darkly operatic address of a dramatic baritone. The sunny chorus of Fern Hill
needed to return, transfigured, as demons of the poet's mind. Only the largest symphonic forces could support, lead, and color these voices. What I didn't yet know was how my musical means could encompass every emotion of Thomas's character. I couldn't hear Thomas or myself, anymore in the kinds of music I'd written before.
So Poem on His Birthday
became only the second piece I ever composed (after my Oboe Concerto
) that I built architecturally. That is, I planned the piece out in its large paragraphs, its small gestures, and its palette of sounds both familiar and unfamiliar, before I ever turned to the keyboard or the page. I took the important themes from the first two pieces, and sketched their possible paths through the new score; I dreamed up (sometimes literally) an array of sounds (sea winds, bird calls, ghost cries) and decided on their precise shape first, their notation later. Then I composed the piece, allowing that "blueprint" to govern the inclusion and inflection of a range of musics wider than I'd ever used up till then.
I thought I was finished. A Dylan Thomas Trilogy
was given its premiere as a full-evening work in 1976 at Washington National Cathedral. But things change. Twenty years later found me more at peace in both my life and work than I had ever thought possible: so the trilogy no longer sounded emotionally complete to me. Nor formally complete, either: Fern Hill
and Poem in October
, both pastorals, sounded too similar to each other to be effective played consecutively, and yet too different from the mature setting of Poem on His Birthday
to which they should lead.
I approached my valued colleague Leonard Slatkin, maestro of the National Symphony Orchestra and asked if I could at last complete the trilogy for him. He enthusiastically agreed; and I set to work.
The more I thought about A Dylan Thomas Trilogy
, the more I realized that oratorio's quasi-operatic delineation of character was exactly what I wanted here. And if this leading character was an adult interpreting of his future through his past, then Fern Hill
and Poem in October
needed to seem not real-time events but as memories. While Poem on His Birthday
would still end the evening, the audience had to hear the first two pieces from the perspective of the third.
So now I needed a new Thomas text probably a late one that could link to Poem on His Birthday
, introduce both Fern Hill
and Poem in October
, and reveal the Thomas who was bawdy, bold, and filled with joy. So much of the setting mourned a joy that had passed: the audience needed to experience what Thomas missed so keenly.
I searched the Collected Poems
. Nothing seemed right. Then, I turned to what I thought would be Thomas's prose introduction to his poetry.
But Author's Prologue
his penultimate work was a lavish, exultant poem that bellowed with lust and life. Its 102 lines boast a breathtaking formal elegance: the first 51 lines rhyme, in reverse order, with the last 51 an aural palindrome! It called for music as unusual as it was buoyant. And it offered A Dylan Thomas Trilogy
the formal inevitability I always dreamed for it.
Little by little, the form came clear. The baritone soloist, large chorus, and orchestra from Poem on His Birthday
would open the evening. Their music would draw from that earlier score: their text would be Part 1 the first 51 lines of the Author's Prologue
. Fern Hill
, its chamber choir and orchestra now clearly framed within the larger forces, would follow: its mezzo-soprano soloist recast as a boy soprano, making unmissable the trilogy's "three ages of man" imagery. Baritone and chorus break in, scherzando
, with Part 2 of the Author's Prologue
, its gleeful, appetitive strophes further characterizing the baritone and preparing the audience for the pastoral ruminations of Poem in October
, still sung by tenor soloist but now rescored for the same chamber orchestra as Fern Hill
's. Now, its preparations complete, Poem on His Birthday
would appear as written; save for one change in its final bars, in which the imagery of reconciliation, left incomplete in its first incarnation, would here at last find vocal apotheosis.
At last A Dylan Thomas Trilogy
feels complete to me.
24 April 1976
Berenice Bramson, soprano; Robert White, tenor; William Walker, baritone
National Symphony and Cathedral Choral Society of Washington; Paul Callaway, conductor
11 March 1999
John Aler, tenor; Håken Hagegård, baritone
National Syphony and Choral Arts Society; Leonard Slatkin, conductor
A Dylan Thomas Trilogy (1959-76, revised 1999)
Fern Hill (full orchestra)
Fern Hill (chamber orchestra)
Fern Hill (harp, piano, strings)
Poem in October
Poem in October (reduced orchestration)
Poem on His Birthday