A Composer's Notepad ::

The Wind, the Sky, and the Wheeling Stars, Opus 46, Rhapsody No. 1 for Orchestra

In January of 1999, Yoichi Udagawa spoke with me of the 1999-2000 season with the Quincy Symphony Orchestra. He wanted to premiere a new work at each of the four regular concerts during the season, and he asked me to write one of them. A substantial period of time lay between the day we reached this agreement and a December 1999 performance (as we first discussed); and I had other pieces which needed to be written for performances earlier in the year. So I did not set myself directly to writing Yoichi's piece.

All the same, the project was never far from my thoughts. Over the course of February-August 1999, I had clocked in enough time (in odd moments here and there at the piano) to produce a small sheaf of rough sketches (some sketches quite finished). And, having tentatively settled on a 'global' outline of the piece, I had reached a point where I felt I could sit down and write the piece fairly comfortably in a month's time, around all the other things that want doing.

In late September, I gave Yoichi a call, to check whether we were still on for a December performance. Yoichi directs two of the community orchestras in the Boston area; and when an orchestra announces its upcoming season, the programs are always subject to change. Thus, I was neither greatly surprised, nor at all discommoded, when I was told my piece had been rescheduled for April. Since now the score and parts did not need to reach Yoichi before March, I had time and freedom to work on some more projects for the coming Christmas season. There were ways in which the rescheduling was welcome.

A week before Christmas (and in the middle of all the activity, musical and otherwise, that attends that happy season), Yoichi called to say that he would like to bump my piece a bit earlier, for the February concert and to ask if the score might be ready the first week of January. As I said, I had decided I could write the piece comfortably in a month's time and here, circumstances were asking me, What about two weeks?

I felt I was ready for a musical challenge, and gladly agreed to furnish Yoichi the piece shortly after New Year's Day.

When we had first spoken of the piece, the January before, he expressed the wish for an overture. Now, while some of Mozart's overtures are in a charmingly and compactly written sonata design, the overture in general does not have a set form; in fact, a great many of the world's most popular overtures are simply a loose (but musically effective) collection of some of the most fetching melodies from the stage-work which the overture is intended to introduce.

So here Yoichi was asking me to name a simple, set form for a piece, for whose design I was in fact pursuing a rather more organic and dynamic process. "Is it a rondo?" he asked. But my years as a graduate student had prepared me to evade that rather direct question, with suave diplomacy.

Fortunately for all concerned, the piece had just settled into a section of clear contrast; and my conception of the rest of the piece was still so malleable, that with a little mental flexibility, I found the piece could yet be effectively cast into a large ternary form. And by the time Yoichi's question about the form was a week old, the answer was clearly, three-part form. And the piece was on the stands of the QSO for their January 11 rehearsal.

The title came to me some time before I wrote even the first musical sketch for the piece. It is a line from a poem I haven't been able to get around to writing, just yet. I don't remember whether I found the title while looking up at an exquisitely clear night sky; or whether, one evening in our apartment in Woburn, I beheld this beautiful vision in memory, and found that I knew the title before I had really thought about a title.

It is impossible to map specific musical ideas in the piece onto any of the natural elements of the title. But as I wrote the piece (whether producing ideas in sketch, or assembling them into a musical whole, or fleshing the piece out in score), I thought of the feeling which stirs in me when I see a large, clear night sky; and I wanted this piece to say something of what I feel.

I could not effectively lecture about the why or how, but I wanted the piece to say something about a thing of unreined power which you cannot see, but which you know is there from its work; about a vast place which does not seem like any place in particular, except that you know where to look for it, and that it is lofty, and bids you rise; about miraculous points of faraway, delicate beauty, which step effortlessly through an exquisite and inexorable choreography.

These are not particularly musicological remarks, I am afraid. But then, musicology and music theory can only go so far in explaining what goes on, in music. That they both have good things to say, we cannot deny; but there is more yet to be said.

These days, it is those latter things that I find myself listening for, when I need to write a piece.

Karl Henning
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