Stephen Albert's TreeStone, for Soprano, Tenor and Chamber Orchestra
TreeStone is a song cycle based on Finnegans Wake, and shares musical material with Albert's Symphony RiverRun.
|Liner notes from the Delos CD
Liner notes written by Stephen C. Smith:
The music of Stephen Albert is a fascinatingly complex world of allusion, dramatic contrast and metaphor. Precise meaning may be elusive, but communication between artist and audience is achieved through the accumulation of sounds and images into a greater emotional whole.
This fascination with paradox and nuance of feeling characterizes much of Albert's work. It is not surprising, then, that the composer has often drawn from the evocative prose of James Joyce for inspiration, from the song cycle To Wake the Dead and the Pulitzer Prize-winning symphony RiverRun (both inspired by Finnegans Wake) and the aria Flower of the Mountain (on texts from Ulysses) to the present song cycle, TreeStone. In Concordiam, while a non-programmatic work, is no less evocative than its disc-mate, and both works are presented here in their first recordings.
TreeStone, completed in 1984, marked Stephen Albert's third setting of James Joyce. The composer considers the song cycle a vocal counterpart to his symphony RiverRun, with which it was composed simultaneously, and with which it shares its basic musical material. (In describing the relationship between the two works, Mr. Albert explains that they "are adaptations of each other.") Scored for flute/piccolo/alto flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet, horn, percussion, harp, piano and strings, TreeStone reinforces the free-flowing ideas of Finnegans Wake (mankind's fall, the cyclic nature of life, the conflict between life's tragic and comic elements) through subtly repeated motives, harmonic relationsips and coloristic ideas. Observes Mr. Albert:
The myth of Tristan is one of the more persistent yet elusive themes in Finnegans Wake. It hovers ghostlike throughout the novel, never wholly perceived but nearly always felt. The story of Tristan is communicated in coded fragments by different persons, challenging our reason and powers of intuition. Our associative memory is forced to the edge, deciphering and piecing together Joyce's abbreviated, irreverent and often deranged version of the tale.
I had already set portions of Finnegans Wake in an early song cycle (To Wake the Dead). After putting the book aside for a couple of years, I began skimming through it again during the fall of 1982 and was intrigued by the recurring allusions to the Tristan and Iseult legend. After a few days of jotting down isolated paragraphs, sentences and phrases that seemed associated with their story, a fairly coherent text emerged that centered Tristan and Iseult in a cluster of related themes and images. The resulting text was cast in seven movements, forming in themselves a musical whole.
The first song, "I am Leafy Speafing," is the voice of the River Liffey as it flows through Dublin at dawn. The movement opens with an instrumental prologue ("rain music") followed by the soprano's entrance as the "feminine" aspect of the river's voice. She reminds her sister and companion, Dublin, how much joy and grief they've shared as silent witnesses to mankind's history.
The second song, "A Grand Funferall," comprises a dirge-like march, a children's music-box ditty and rowdy pub music commingled in a single movement. We are really at a wake -- Tristan and Iseult's funeral. It is not outwardly a particularly sad or solemn occasion, but there is a slightly demonic streak present -- an undercurrent of icy fear among the mourners. They try to dignify the event with a funeral march but cannot really escape their own private fears of parting and disconnection.
"Sea Birds," the third song, returns in time to a bird's-eye view of Tristan and Iseult's first kiss aboard ship, but it is also the instant of their first curse: "The birds of the sea they trolled out right bold when they smacked the big kuss of Tristan with Isolde. . ."
In "Tristopher Tristian" and "Fallen Griefs," the fourth and fifth songs, two washer-women banter about a family scandal concerning "cousins" in the remote part -- in fact, the "cousins" are Tristan, and English soldier and Iseult, an Irish Princess.
The text of the final song is a small portion of the most familiar section of Finnegans Wake and is entitled "Anna Livia Plurabelle." It is both the "masculine" aspect of the river's voice as well as the interior closing monologue of the older, more dominant washer-woman. Shee feels darkness coming over the river and, perhaps, over her own life as well. Tired of washing, tired of talking, tired of remembering, she ". . . could near to faint away. Into the deeps. I saw home slowly now by my own way, moy valley way. Thinking always if I go all goes."
Life along the river at dusk is becoming more and more intense and vivid, but her senses are fading. She glances across to the river's opposite bank and sees her younger companion turning to stone. Her own arms have been transfigured into the limbs of a tree as her body is taking root. She is surrounded by sounds in the night and of the river. Both women have become transformed into more enduring parts of nature, one a tree, the other stone, as the river flows between them. The river will always be a source of their own connection, but it will aslo divide them. The Liffey now makes its way past Dublin and rushes into the sea as the night falls.
To Wake The Dead -- (1978) This is a cycle of six songs and one instrumental interlude, with lyrics pulled from the text of Finnegans Wake.
Symphony RiverRun -- (1983) A symphony in four movements, its overall musical theme taking Finnegans Wake as its source of inspiration.
Distant Hills -- (1987-89) For tenor, soprano & orchestra. Based on texts from Ulysses, this two-piece suite contains Sun's Heat and Flower of the Mountain