“Writing music is a way of learning who you are—a kind of self-discovery,” says Dominick Argento. “If you put all my pieces together, that’s me. That’s who I am.” A first-generation American, born to Italian immigrant parents in York, Pennsylvania, the composer marked his diamond jubilee in the 2002-03 season with performances of his music by the numerous musical organizations, including the Dale Warland Singers, who have commissioned him across the decades.
No composer has done more to put the name of Minnesota on the international music map. A graduate of the Peabody Conservatory of Music who proceeded to earn his doctorate in composition at Eastman School, Argento arrived in Minnesota in 1958 with Fulbright and Guggenheim awards behind him, plus a widely performed Chekhov-based opera, The Boor. Sojourns in Florence, Italy, the birthplace of opera, had been shaping his lyric art. He joined the University of Minnesota music faculty as a teacher of theory and composition, and less than twenty years later he was named Regents Professor. By then he was a noted composer with the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for music to his credit for his song cycle, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, which was premiered by Dame Janet Baker.
Settling in Minneapolis on the threshold of the regional theater boom sparked by the Guthrie Theater, Argento collaborated with Sir Tyrone Guthrie and other directors, writing incidental music for Guthrie Theater productions. He also served as co-founder of the Center Opera, composing its inaugural work, The Masque of Angels (1964), and helping to grow a company determined to mount new music. Although the voice is the focus of his art—dramatic song cycles, poetic choral compositions, and thirteen operas—Argento also has produced a diversity of orchestral scores. Seven have been commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra. These range from extravagantly orchestrated tone poems to an intimate orchestral song cycle, Casa Guidi, based on letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning; in 2002, the Minnesota Orchestra recorded the work with Frederica von Stade, who had sung the 1983 premiere.
Dominick Argento’s commitment to the singing voice has added to the operatic repertory such compelling works as Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe, the most successful opera commissioned for the 1976 American bicentennial, and the Dallas Opera-produced and nationally televised The Aspern Papers, a reflection of the bel canto idiom based on a Henry James novel. But the composer’s passion for singing transcends the theater and the solo setting: he loves as much the massed voices of chorus. He has regularly added to the imaginative body of choral works that the Dale Warland Singers and other choral organizations have presented to the world, both in touring and on recordings. His enduring contributions to choral literature are represented by the three contrasting pieces on this disc.
“Achieving the balances that are the challenge of choral conducting are built right into Argento’s music,” says Dale Warland. No text eludes the composer’s literary skills, whether he is dealing with war poems of the last century or verses from the Elizabethan age—Shakespeare, for instance, in a darkly poignant setting of Sonnet No. LXIV, written not long after the attack on the World Trade Center and premiered by the Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music held in Minneapolis in 2002. Among Argento’s large-scale works is a Te Deum, the traditional hymn of praise, in which he alternates Latin and Old English texts. On a more intimate scale, Walden Pond evokes the outdoor musings of the nineteenth-century author and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau.
“My interest is people,” Argento says. Their joys, their struggles, their images of experience are evoked by this American composer who has stepped forward from the Romantic tradition to illuminate how music helps us understand our own humanity.
“. . . everything has a subtext for me. When I’m setting it to music, it’s not just the text being sung. Underneath there’s another text much like it but that suggests certain emphases that you wouldn’t do in the original, or certain ways of stressing or prolonging words.”
I HATE AND I LOVE (ODI ET AMO) (1982)
Cycle for mixed chorus and percussion
Poetry by Gaius Catullus
This was the first piece I composed for the Dale Warland Singers although I had been familiar with their exceptionally fine work from the time they performed my Tria Carmina Paschalia, a dozen years earlier, and from the many concerts I had attended since then. Throughout all that time, in my opinion, they had been our premier choral group. Consequently I spent a good deal of time searching for a text that would allow me to exploit, complement and flatter their versatility and artistry.
I had just settled in Florence for the summer and was having unusual difficulty getting started on the piece because I was growing more and more dissatisfied with the text I had finally chosen. In a period of relaxation I was re-reading the Latin poems of Catullus, this time in Salvatore Quasimodo’s Italian translation. I must confess that many years before, when I had read the poems as a student, they made little impression on me. But now Quasimodo’s translation made me understand what my inadequate Latin had failed to reveal: the depth of passion of Catullus’ love and hatred for Clodia and the agony of his constant vacillation between these two extremes. It suddenly struck me that this was the text I should be setting, not merely reading it to pass the time. So the piece I originally had in mind was quickly abandoned and I began again using Catullus’ work.
Six poems were selected and translated into English (some of it I cribbed from Quasimodo’s translation). The poem of the title serves as both the first and last piece–suggesting at the end that the love/hate cycle is about to be repeated again, and—in all likelihood—repeated endlessly. The five poems in between are arranged in an order intended to emphasize the strong contrasting states of Catullus’ joy and despair.
The commission requested the utilization of only a few instruments to accompany the chorus. Considering the antiquity of the text and the elemental emotions it deals with, I decided against piano, strings, woodwinds or brass, opting instead for a less time-specific sound: mostly non-pitched percussion instruments– gongs, triangles, cymbals, drums, woodblocks and so forth.
A TOCCATA OF GALUPPI’S (1989)
Rhapsody for chamber choir, harpsichord and string quartet
Poetry by Robert Browning
In a letter Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to her sister Henrietta back in London, she describes furnishing an apartment in Florence that she and her poet-husband had just taken: “Robert wants a ducal bed for my room–all gilded and carving. I persuaded him to get a piano instead.” Robert Browning must have been a decent if modest pianist to judge by 1) the music he owned, among which there was a volume of Toccatas by Baldassare Galuppi that he had purchased at a local flea market and 2) his familiarity (though sometimes not quite reliable) with technical and theoretical musical terms such as those appearing in this poem and in several others.
No doubt something about those hundred-year-old keyboard compositions of Galuppi elicited thoughts of mortality in the poet’s mind, prompting him to ruminate on the decline of the grandeur of 18th-century Venice and on human frailty. It had always been one of my favorite poems by Browning and when I received a commission from a consortium headed up by the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, I thought I saw a way of making an unusual choral work out of it by having a string quartet accompany the chorus as they sang the poet’s words and having interspersions and overlappings throughout from a harpsichord playing a Galuppi toccata (not on a clavichord as Browning anachronistically has it, since its volume would be too soft for my purpose). Furthermore, except for just a few measures at the very end, Galuppi’s music would be quoted exactly as he wrote it, without anything altered or added, while the music of the string quartet and chorus would be a set of variations on my own 12-note theme. The intention being, of course, to present a contrast of the present-day with a period long ago vanished. And ideally, to bolster this distinction, the harpsichord would not be visible in live performance but concealed somehow and made to seem a spectral, unreal presence. The impression I wished to create in the listeners’ minds was that of the poet, seated at the keyboard, envisioning an 18th-century Venetian world called into being as he actually plays the Galuppi toccata.
I no longer remember what led me to believe that Toccata #11 in B-flat major was the one Browning may have had in mind—scholars still quarrel about it—but rightly or wrongly, it fit the idea I wanted to convey and is the one I chose to use.
WALDEN POND (1996)
Cycle for chorus, three violoncellos, and harp
Excerpts from Walden by Henry Thoreau
As was the case with I Hate and I Love, this work is also a commission from the Dale Warland Singers and, like its predecessor, I felt it demanded a very special text in order to take advantage of this superb vocal group’s abilities. The hunt for an interesting or unusual text—one that is perfectly suited to a specific singer or chorus—is, for me, a highly important part of the creative process and not infrequently the search takes more time than the actual composing of the music. I take a certain amount of pride in the texts I have chosen to set to music over the years but of them all, Walden Pond is a special case.
For some reason, bodies of water—rivers, lakes, seas—hold a great fascination for me. Among the various titles in my catalogue are: Jonah and the Whale, A Water Bird Talk, To Be Sung Upon the Water,and The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe. And even where no hint of some aquatic orientation is in the title of a work, the events it deals with are quite often located near or on some body of water: The Aspern Papers, on the banks of Lake Como; Casanova’s Home-coming, in Venice; Colonel Jonathan the Saint, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Of all these compositions,Walden Pond would be the one work most unabashedly evincing this preoccupation, using it not merely as a circumstance or colorful backdrop, but focusing directly on a body of water itself. And that may explain why I prefer Walden over all my other large choral pieces, as do some of my friends. One of its most satisfying elements is the idyll-like savor it has for me. Naturally much of this is due to Thoreau’s beautiful text which I edited freely and extensively in order to obtain the specific images I wanted. But a good part of the ambience of the piece is due to its instrumentation: the harp, I think, lends a properly watery, rippling tone while the three violoncellos provide a sense of warmth, darkness, and a feeling of depth. The idea of using multiple solo celli was borrowed from the overture to Rossini’s William Tell where their sound wonderfully limns a placid woodland.
--- Dominick Argento