On a Monday morning about three years ago, Richard Danielpour arrived in the small Hudson River Valley town of Cortlandt Manor, New York, to begin an unusual kind of composer residency. He was to live by himself for several weeks in Copland House, the former home of Aaron Copland, and get some serious composing work done. Unlike other resident fellowships - at Tanglewood, say, or Yaddo, or the MacDowell Colony - this one offered no companionship with fellow artists, only hours of solitude and communion with the spirit of the late American master, whose favorite river views and simple furnishings had been lovingly preserved in the house. "Copland's house was like his music," Mr. Danielpour recalls. "Everything was plain, nothing was there but what was needed. He once said that the art of orchestration was taking things away." The date, that Monday, was September 10, 2001.
"WAR AS A FORM OF INSANITY"
Mr. Danielpour had brought two projects with him to Copland House. The first was examining and correcting the galley proofs of An American Requiem, the large-scale work for chorus, soloists, and orchestra that had occupied him since the previous September. Then, as time permitted, he would tackle a new commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra for the baritone Thomas Hampson. He bad brought along two possible texts for the new work, each consisting of a selection of poems: one by the 14th-century Persian poet Rumi, and another by the 20th-century Irish writer William Butler Yeats.
An American Requiem, as the composer describes it, is "an examination of why we traverse borders in order to kill other people." In the course of interviewing U.S. veterans who had served in wars from World War II to Operation Desert Storm, he said, "I found that my respect for these men went through the roof, but I became all the more adamant about war as a form of insanity." All that may have seemed a faraway prospect on the morning of September 11, as the sun poured into the large windows of the Copland studio, and Mr. Danielpour spread his proofs our on the late composer's work desk. Shortly after 9:00 a.m., he phoned his publisher, G. Schirmer, whose offices are located in downtown Manhattan, and he learned of the airplane attacks on the World Trade Center. After talking to various Schirmer staff members for half an hour, and hearing the grief and fear in their voices, he found the house's television set and turned it on, in time to watch the twin towers fall.
Many of us who work in the arts remember the days and weeks after September 11 as a time of shock and temporary paralysis, when there seemed to be no words or images or notes that could express the new and terrible world we were living in. Mr. Danielpour's situation, as he looked at his completed American Requiem, was different. "In a way," he says of that dreadful morning, "I was already in it before it happened. We had never experienced this on our own soil. But I had been trying to ask 'Why war?' for a whole year. And I was alone there. Had I been with other people, I might not have been able to work." In 10 days, he finished editing the proofs of the Requiem.
STAGES OF GRIEF
The new work for Philadelphia and Mr. Hampson was next, and now the Yeats poems asserted their claim. Although the Irish poet often wrote about the bloody communal passions of his era, there is, Mr. Danielpour says, "a quality of aloneness in these poems. And this is the most isolated I've been when writing a piece." His first reading of Yeats's apocalyptic poem "The Second Coming" during his student days remained a vivid memory, and now he finally felt ready to attempt a musical setting of it. Furthermore, he says, "I had mentioned to 'Tom Hampson a couple of years before, that I would probably do Yeats for him." Far from paralyzed by events, Mr. Danielpour sketched all six movements of Songs of Solitude at Copland House by October 5. He completed the work during a MacDowell residency the following December and January - in record time, by his standards.
During the work's composition, Mr. Danielpour says, "I became aware that I was locking onto those stages of grief that [the psychiatrist Elisabeth] Kubler-Ross wrote about in On Death and Dying - anger, denial, resignation, and the rest. There isn't a literal correspondence, bar by bar, but the music deals with them all in some way." For example, the work's third movement, "Drinking Song" (a setting of Yeats's poem "Blood and the Moon") sounds, the composer says, "as if it were sung by someone who's had a few too many. Over that jazzy walking bass, you hear the rage inside the bitter joke."
INSPIRATION LEADS TO NEW PERSPECTIVES
According to Mr. Danielpour, Thomas Hampson's particular gifts have left their mark on this score. "I've always wanted to write something for him to sing completely a capella, without accompaniment, because he's so good at that. I almost did that in the fourth sung, 'These Are the Clouds,' where there's only that D-flat on the chime, sounding a knell, the way they do in Italy when somebody dies. And he has this remarkable voix mixe - very soft high notes, not quite falsetto, which I used in 'The Second Coming.'" The composer also credits Mr. Hampson, to whom this work is dedicated, for many helpful suggestions about the use of breathing for expression in a sung text.
Richard Danielpour, who by his own description made his reputation with "layered and rich" orchestral scores, cites his encounter with Yeats's spare verse, Copland's economical style, and Mr. Hampson's artistry, as giving him a different, and he hopes deeper, perspective on composition. "An American Requiem and Songs of Solitude," he says, "were the last two works before I started my opera" - that is, Margaret Garner, composed to a libretto by Toni Morrison, and scheduled for premieres in 2005 and 2006 by the commissioning opera companies in Michigan, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia. "Those pieces taught me that it's not what you put in the score, it's what you leave out." And so Songs of Solitude, a document of loss from a time of loss, may prove to be an artistic gain for both composer and listener.