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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Mottetti di Montale (voice and ensemble) (1980)
Text Writer
Eugenio Montale
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Soloist(s) and Large Ensemble (7 or more players)
Sub Category
Year Composed
56 Minutes
Mezzo Soprano
Alternate Orchestration
Mezzo Soprano; pf
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Programme Note
John Harbison Mottetti di Montale (voice and ensemble) (1980)
Composer note:

Twenty years after composing Mottetti di Montale for mezzo-soprano and piano (1980), the last installment of its orchestration for chamber ensemble was completed. My interest in this piece has persisted 1) because I like the music, 2) because I am deeply interested in Montale's poetry and have found that the piece serve to interest others as well, and 3) because breaking the 56-minute span into shorter segments and transforming it into a mixed-ensemble format (vocal recitals being nearly extinct) promises more hearings for both the music and the words.

I expect these arrangements to be most performed as individual Libri of four to six songs. But only the entire span can provide the cryptic narrative, the "novel in verse" that Montale described when he published the sequence in 1950 as part of his collection Le Occasioni.

The first of the arrangements, or Libri III and IV, entitled Due Libri, was commissioned by the New York Philomusica and dedicated to Merle Montgomery. It was first performed by them in 1990, dedicated to Robert Levin, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (who has recorded this music with the Greenleaf Chamber Players on Archetype). In 1998 came the premiere of Libro I, commissioned by the University of Oregon, entitled La Primavera di Sottoripa. The performers were members of the Third Angle, conducted by the composer, with Janice Felty (who sang the first performance of Mottetti di Montale, with Edward Auer, piano, at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 1981). Finally in 2000, came Libro II, The White Swallow, commissioned by Collage. The arrangements impart an individual color to each section (divisions decided by the composer, not the poet). It was my good fortune to experience the Ligurian surroundings of the poems a decade after I had set them for voice and piano, in time to involve their sights and sounds in the orchestration.

The heroine of the sequence, modeled on Dante's Beatrice, is Montale's Clizia, actually the Canadian-American poet Irma Brandeis. Her fleeting presences and prolonged absences are the glowing centers of the poems. Numerous elusive references, mostly evoking her or occasions with her, flash by in these poems.

— John Harbison

  • Ensemble
    Collage New Music
    Janice Felty and Margaret Lattimore, mezzo-sopranos
    David Hoose
    Koch International Classics:
"One of the pleasures in Harbison's songs is hunting for the way he connects words and text - a great pleasure since the links are never obvious. ... The piano tiptoes through the graveyard as mezzo mentions death. Insistent, pulsating anxieties in the piano part play out in the third song against Montale's inscrutable sketch of a threatening visitation."
Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer,08/04/2014
"...John Harbison's settings of poems by Eugenio Montale, a version for voice and chamber ensemble of the second half of the composer's song-cycle Mottetti di Montale from 1980. Elegantly crafted, there's more than a hint of Mahler and even the young Britten in these eight songs, both in the string writing and the word-painting, though Harbison, like his mentors, understands how the chamber ensemble can add a psychological resonance to the soloist's part. These are dark songs of unrequited love and Harbison generally responds with dark musical thoughts, though there's a delicious lilting Latin rhythm in 'La Rana'."
Christopher Cook, International Record Review,01/04/2007
Mottetti di Montale is [a] great work. Harbison's astonishingly flexible, allusive music is directly responsive to image and to atmosphere. The orchestration somehow enlarges the cycle by altering the relationship between singer and "accompaniment" and by opening up a new palette of colors and textures, which are a radiant response to the composer's perception of the poet's physical and emotional landscape. It was a great moment for Harbison and Collage.
Richard Dyer, Boston Globe,01/01/0001
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