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Carrion-Miles to Purgatory: thirteen pieces after texts of Robert Lowell for violin and cello (2014)

Duration: ca. 35'
Commissioned by the Library of Congress

Program Note by David Plylar
(originally published for the Library of Congress’s 90th Anniversary Concert Season)

Michael Hersch's new work for violin and cello does not enter a genre with a vast repertory already in place—perhaps Ravel's Sonata for violin and cello is the best- known work of its type. Hersch has a great deal of experience writing for strings, and this will be in evidence to the audience when listening to his new piece. Because it is a substantial work with deep connections between movements and to the Lowell poetry that Hersch relates to it, I am taking the liberty of writing a few words about the piece based on my reading of the beautiful score. The music, like the poetry, occupies an introspective landscape of uncertainty, and at times, desolation.

Considering the music in light of its poetic counterpart, and vice versa, can be revelatory. The pacing of the music is emblematic of the work's bleak affect; sound and silence join to invite contemplation. Hersch’s performance notes for Carrion-Miles to Purgatory set the tone for the work, literally, stating among other things that "vibrato must be used sparingly."

The quiet opening movement (I), marked Delicately, Uneasily, is a series of chords, with each instrument playing dyads (a pair of notes) that tend to slowly contract and expand from one to the next. The traversal from chord to chord, punctuated by heavy silences, is often subtle, especially as (I) nears its end. The instruments share the same register for the final chords, where the close intervals of seconds and quarter-tones bring the veiled tension to a focus. (II) occupies a similar soundspace, but with a bit more melodic movement, starting with the violin's opening solo. Minor-ninth dyads mark the cello's entry, suggesting a glance back at (I) before the short movement closes, again with quiet, taut and tight intervals, now in the middle register.

By the time we reach (III), sonorities are recognizable, a natural fallout of the careful establishment of the chords and melodic fragments in (I) and (II). The sequence of rocking chords in the cello is a sped-up modification of the cello material from (I). The violin plays a more melodic role, and the articulations and dynamics gain greater force, maintaining the steady alternation of high/low chords, but now with a new, accented rhythmic idea (short-long) on most significant beats. In (IV) the tempo pulls back to a slower pace, and new gestures are introduced, such as an arpeggiated triplet figure. We hear the retrograde dotted rhythm introduced in (III), and even in its brevity we might notice the melodic similarities established in the settings of faster gestures, be it solo violin, cello, or together. (V) is marked Expansively, and proceeds at a regular rate. Reflecting the "Again and then again" of the poetry Hersch attaches to this movement, the music cycles through a wide registral range, repeating the first nine measures literally (or nearly so), separated by the now-familiar pitch cluster chords of one measure. Having established these norms, the music is prone to greater levels of deviation and developed interjections of the non-normative. (V) closes with a familiar melodic tag in the violin's upper range above a suspended cello tone.

In (VI), the glassy sul ponticello writing obscures the figure rising from the cello's depths. The cello's swift lines cannot escape the slowly progressing violin line that is omnipresent. A beautiful passage (marked Poco piùmosso) harkens back to the rocking motion of (III), isolating first in the violin and then in the cello the fifths of D-A and the sevenths/seconds of B-flat-A. The violin offers its own push of the faster- moving material before confronting the cello in a minor-second duel, followed by a mezzo forte denouement of rocking chords that return to the same point of rest. (VII), marked Ferociously, features the clangorous return of the rhythmic motive introduced in (III). The cello screams its version of the melodic third/descending second idea while above the violin in register. As the movement progresses we also hear scraps of (VI) propelling us forward. What I think of as a chromatic cluster lance is repeatedly thrown at the end, only to suddenly drop off; whether successful in hitting its target or not, it is unclear. The mood of (VIII) completely contrasts with what preceded it. Marked "ghostly," we are now in a quiet world of an accompaniment slowly oscillating beneath a simple violin melody (it is not so simple for the violinist, who must still contribute to the ever- moving accompaniment). This spectral lullaby cannot last—it is, however quietly, interrupted by the return of stagnant chords.

The violin is given license to play in (IX), presenting material both new and familiar above the cello's plucked accompaniment, warming the ground of the pizzicato cello with the violin's shine. The violin's oscillating-thirds figure, isolated in (IX), now plays a prominent role in (X). Some remnants from earlier sections continue to appear, becoming increasingly insistent. The sudden arrival at a music stripped of nearly all is shocking. Marked Deeply Solemn, the exceptionally quiet music consists of alternating pairs of notes, simultaneously eliciting the worlds of barren vertical dyads with an ultra-slow alternation of the movement's opening thirds. One last screeching interjection by the violin fails to depose the weighty burden of the cello's slow, quiet persistence.

The conflict of (X) leads to a return to a chord sequence in (XI), related to that of (I) but different, and made more complex by context. With only a few excursions to louder dynamics, the soft, slow music still maintains an intensity evocative of a "Hell" that is "burned out." In section (XII) the music returns to the world of (V), with greater prominence given to the intercession of material, linking the confines of the canaries' cage with those of life. By the end we realize that the same music, at the same pitch levels, serves to close (XII), further binding the poetic and musical sentiments. At the close of the set in (XIII), the music of (II) is directly quoted, but now in a less fragmented state. The violin stakes out space for a longer melody that cannot be escaped despite the intrusion of the cello's music. This final movement subtly touches on many of the thematic and color ideas presented earlier, now heard anew together. The violin's melody hints at the rocking cradle. The work ends quietly, as it began, echoing the close of (I) and (II). Hersch's duo is an introspective work, with the capacity to draw the audience into the internal orbit of an individual's psyche. It demonstrates that cries of pain and hope can be both anguished and, perhaps more terrifying, muffled.

[work duration ca: 40’]



Robert Lowell Texts:

  1. To hang the Furies by their itching ears,
    And the green needles nail us to the wall.
  2. ... and the snow
    Blazes its carrion-miles to Purgatory.
  3. ...Now how the weary waters swell, - The tree is down in blood!

    All the bats of Babel flap about
    The rising sun of hell.
  4. ... and the oak
    Splatters and splatters on the cenotaph ...
  5. Again and then again ... the year is born

    To ice and death ... the snake-tailed sea-winds coughed and howled For alms outside the church whose double locks

    Wait for St. Peter
    Time and the grindstone and the knife of God ...
  6. ... drowned face downward ...
    Until the thaw he waited, then the flood Roared like a wounded dragon over shoal
    And reef ...
    And rolled his body like a log to Styx;
    Two angels fought with bill-hooks for his soul.
  7. ... my bones are trembling and I hear

    The earth’s reverberations and the trumpet
    Bleating into my shambles ...

    O Mary ... Our sacred earth in our day is our curse.
  8. ... I saw you wiry, bed-ridden ... Half inaudible ...
    It is all

    A moment. The trees
    Grow earthward: neither good Nor evil, hopes nor fears, Repulsion nor desire ...

    Will serve to stay the fall.
  9. Time smiling on this sundial of a world Sweltered about the snowman and the worm ...
    This winter all the snowmen turn to stone ...
    May the snow recede and red clay furrows set In the grim grin of their erosion, in
    The caterpillar tents and roadslides, fat
    With muck and dropsy ...
    Into this eldest of the seasons.
  10. ... and the laugh of Death is hacked in sandstone ...
  11. Hell is burned out, heaven’s harp-strings are slack. Mother, run to the chalice, and bring back
    Blood on your finger-tips ...
  12. ... Canaries beat their bars and scream ...
  13. ... and black-windowed blocks
    Recoil against a Gothic church. The clocks Are tolling ...
    The shocked stones
    Are falling like a ton of bricks and bones
    That snap and splinter and descend in glass ...

All texts from Lord Weary's Castle by Robert Lowell (1917-1977), extracted by the composer