David Del Tredici
I Hear an Army
(1964; 12:28) For soprano and string quartet.

Night Conjure-Verse
(1965) For soprano, mezzo-soprano or countertenor, and chamber ensemble.
I. Simples (8:20)
II. A Memory of the Players in a Mirror at Midnight (8:44)

(1966) For soprano, chimes, horn, and orchestra.
I. Ecce Puer (5:50)
II. Nightpiece (18:37)

David Del Tredici's Joycean Songs: I Hear an Army, Night Conjure-Verse, Syzygy
A cluster of Joyce settings dating from Del Tredici's "modernist" period, I've grouped these three consecutive works together on this single page. They're also conveniently located on one CRI compact disc, where they're followed by Scherzo, an early work for four-hand piano. It's a collection I recommend very highly; not just to Joyceans, but to anyone with an interest in modern music. The CD comes with excellent liner notes which I've reprinted below. As these notes detail the musical intricacies of the works far better than I ever could, I will just provide some general impressions and remarks as a Joyce enthusiast.
First of all, it seems almost unfair to call these songs "settings." Del Tredici's pieces are as far from traditional settings as one can expect; he subjects the poems to a process of re-invention, deconstructing them to their basic elements and then assembling complex worlds of sound around the axes of Joyce's raw language. The results are wholly original works of music, filled with surprises and fueled by an inexhaustible sense of invention. To one familiar with the original source, Del Tredici's interpretations can be a bit startling -- the poems are often recontextualized by the music, or made oddly unfamiliar by a shift in perspective. Additionally, they have all been scored for a soprano, which further subverts expectations -- especially for "I Hear an Army" and "Ecce Puer," which convey different shades of meaning when expressed from a female point of view. The vocal writing itself is quite challenging, and places some frightful demands upon the soprano. Not only must she provide the occasional lyrical interlude, but also hiss, spit, shriek, laugh, trill, and master those dizzying swoops and sudden drops associated with much vocal music from the sixties.
The earliest piece is also my favorite -- I Hear an Army. One of the most popular poems in Chamber Music, it may also be the best, and its images of desolation have inspired dozens of composers to underscore Joyce's words with music. The usual result is a song that radiates melancholy broken by some passionate turbulence; we often imagine a sensitive lover brooding in despair, perhaps somewhat melodramatically awaiting a deeper level of emotional calamity. The lover is certainly distraught; but to one familiar with the previous 35 poems in the cycle, the reader expects the poet's expression of grief to be somewhat overwrought. It makes a fine song, combining the melodrama of opera with the heartfelt longing of an old ballad.
Which is exactly how Del Tredici does not set it. Reading it completely as a nightmare, Del Tredici discards any dreamy metaphors and sets the poem as a musical night-terror from beginning to end. He seems to take his cues less from the overall drama of the poem and more from isolated words of motion and violence: charging, plunging, fluttering, cry, moan, whirling, cleave, clanging, shaking, shouting, and so on. The string quartet is pushed to its limits. Entering with an unnerving agitation of sounds, the music snaps and bristles and flutters, swelling inexorably to assault the sleeper with its restless taunting. Eventually the soprano's voice emerges from a rare moment of tense stillness, her words like a handful of nails pressing through agonized flesh. The dreamer is left naked and stark; no sense of romantic melancholy is allowed, not even the lugubrious comfort of sadness. Del Tredici's lover is not moaning for a recently departed love; she is reliving a terrible abandonment perpetuated nightly upon her, her own fractured sanity itself the charging army. After the vocal line fades away, the strings begin a long process of winding down, crawling back into the sea of anxious sleep over a shore of sharp rocks and fractured shells.
Night Conjure-Verse pairs two poems from Pomes Penyeach, "Simples" and "A Memory of the Players in a Mirror at Midnight." While the poems may be thematically unrelated, Del Tredici unites them musically by "doubling" the soprano and constructing both songs around mirror-image motifs. Unlike I Hear an Army, Del Tredici takes more liberties with the poet's words, breaking them down, repeating phrases, and shuttling them back and forth for effect.
Emerging from an otherworldly, mournful call on the horn, "Simples" begins with an understated lyricism. The mezzo-soprano introduces the first stanza with an affected slowness, her words underlined by a slippery tension created by the strings and wind septet. As the music grows more disturbingly angular, the vocals drift into a realm haunted by echoes and shadows, with the soprano entering on the second stanza in a hurried flutter before sliding into a spooky canon with her lower twin. The final stanza is the most beautiful, seemingly woven from air by the shadowplay of the two voices, which are finally called to rest by the spectral summons of the lonely horn. While the original poem is certainly touched by a feeling of eerie calm, this setting seems to suggest something more sinister is afoot -- one can easily imagine why the poet desires to be isolated from this unearthly child, gathering "simples of the moon."
"A Memory of the Players in the Mirror at Midnight," the second part of Night Conjure-Verse, is a standout performance of virtuoso composition. Taking the imagery of the mirror as a structural device, Del Tredici spins the poem out across a complex system of instrumental doubling and inversions, using both voices to unravel Joyce's scornful stanzas into a turbulent vortex. While the mezzo-soprano initially serves as the "reflection" of the soprano, it doesn't take long until doppelgänger is set free from singer, and both voices attack the poem in a swirl of mocking sirens. Words are repeated until they deform, fragment, or are reduced to hissing; stanzas are unspooled more and more rapidly and then reeled in after an apogee of babbling; and the linked voices move swiftly between moments of unison, cooperation, and working at cross-purposes. Again, as with I Hear an Army, the music sets its compass by the harshest words in the text, and moves with a frantic, almost schizophrenic agitation, spiked with bursts of pizzicato, whirling winds, and blurting horns.
Syzygy, Del Tredici's last Joycean work, couples "Ecce Puer," the plaintive poem Joyce wrote the day his grandson was born, with "Nightpiece," one of the more sardonic works from Pomes Penyeach. Although both poems approach a sense of cosmic mystery from very different directions, their pairing seems a bit arbitrary, but again Del Tredici connects them musically with a shared structural idiom. Extending the mirror-image motif that united the poems of Night Conjure-Verse, the concept of syzygy itself becomes the dominant musical device -- the complex coordination, conjunction, and coupling of systems. Returning now to a single soprano, the ensemble has been widened to include various groups of interlocking instruments and an extended set of tubular bells. The result is a breathtaking flight of invention; indeed, I have to wonder if the poems themselves can bear the weight of the music. While the songs themselves are endlessly fascinating, even riveting, I can't help but think that the guileless honesty of "Ecce Puer" and the hushed tones of "Nightpiece" are simply overwhelmed. Still, given the sheer power of the music, it seems churlish to hold back an enthusiastic recommendation given a difference of interpretation, and I may be guilty here of the simple bias of a long-time reader.
"Ecce Puer," the shortest work in the series, begins on a stylistic note that sets the tone for the entire Syzygy -- a painfully high piccolo floats in above the thick, dark river of a double bassoon. The soprano enters almost ritualistically, bells lifting her voice on silver clouds between the distant registers. As more instruments join in, the opposing ranges are slowly brought closer into focus through an array of musical effects such as echoes, doubling, and strategic inversions. Though a fairly quiet work, there is a sense of space created here, and Del Tredici keeps all the themes and figures in various motion like the distinct, articulated components of some submerged machine. While the layman's ear may never discern the numerous devices employed to structure the music (I certainly can't!), there is nevertheless an elusive sense of order and complexity that endlessly intrigues the ear. The lyric comes to a haunting conclusion, "O, father forsaken" spired with desperate trills, immediately followed by "Forgive your son!" declaimed flatly but earnestly over the bells. That the song is given to a female voice necessitates a change in meaning itself; deepening the sense of prayer as if by compassionate intercession. (It is tempting, though certainly misguided, to project Nora Joyce into this!)
The final Joycean song is the longest, a rendition of "Nightpiece" that covers over eighteen minutes of very intricate musical territory. It begins sneakily, the instruments creeping in like nervous animals until the soprano announces the first line: "Gaunt in gloom." After a few repetitions, the poem unfolds with some spectacular vocal effects. Some lines are repeated with a rapid, breathy squeaking; other phrases are simply destroyed at the top range of the soprano's voice. As the clustered music grows more turbulent and difficult, the entire work begins to split across high and low ranges, with tubular bells and horn adding some fascinating ornamentation to the increasingly distraught vocal line. Finally the entire work explodes on the line "tolls," which is sung in frantic repetitions over the instrumental confusion. This leads to the final lines of the poem, again delivered with a bleak flatness. A pause precedes a remarkable final coda, where the poem is revisited in fragmented form. Like a spiral of words swirling down a drain, we hear the first few lines of each stanza twirled together, chased by a rapid patter of final words vocalized in quick, shifting patterns before the music bubbles to a sudden stop.
All in all, a wonderful CD, with informative and accessible liner notes, great sound, and some excellent performances, particularly by soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson. Though Del Tredici's Alice works are certainly more popular, it would be a shame to overlook these pieces, which have an appeal far beyond their label as "Del Tredici's early works." And for a literary enthusiast, they certainly represent a unique but coherent take on some of Joyce's best poetry.


I Hear an Army (Chamber Music XXXVI)

I hear an army charging upon the land,
And hear the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their
Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,
Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the

They cry unto the night their battle name:
I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling
They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,
Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.

They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:
They come out of the sea and run shouting by the
My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?
My love, my love, my love, why have you left me


O bella bionda,
Sei come l'onda!

Of cool sweet dew and radiance mild
The moon a web of silence weaves
In the still garden where a child
Gathers the simple salad leaves.

A moondew stars her hanging hair
And moonlight kisses her young brow
And, gathering, she sings an air:
Fair as the wave is, fair, art thou!

Be mine, I pray, a waxen ear
To shield me from her childish croon
And mine a shielded heart for her
Who gathers simples of the moon.

A Memory of the Players in a Mirror at Midnight

They mouth love's language. Gnash
The thirteen teeth
Your lean jaws grin with. Lash
Your itch and quailing, nude greed of the flesh.
Love's breath in you is stale, worded or sung,
As sour as cat's breath,
Harsh of tongue.

This grey that stares
Lies not, stark skin and bone.
Leave greasy lips their kissing. None
Will choose her what you see to mouth upon.
Dire hunger holds his hour.
Pluck forth your heart, saltblood, a fruit of tears.
Pluck and devour!

Ecce Puer

Of the dark past
A child is born;
With joy and grief
My heart is torn.

Calm in his cradle
The living lies.
May love and mercy
Unclose his eyes!

Young life is breathed
On the glass;
The world that was not
Comes to pass.

A child is sleeping:
An old man gone.
O, father forsaken,
Fogive your son!


Gaunt in gloom
The pale stars their torches
Enshrouded wave.
Ghostfires from heaven's far verges faint illume
Arches on soaring arches,
Night's sindark nave.

The lost hosts awaken
To service till
In moonless gloom each lapses, muted, dim
Raised when she has and shaken
Her thurible.

And long and loud
To night's nave upsoaring
A starknell tolls
As the bleak incense surges, cloud on cloud,
Voidward from the adoring
Waste of souls.

 Excerpts from the liner notes from the CRI Compact Disc, American Masters: David Del Tredici. Written by Robin Holloway

David Del Tredici's compositional trajectory is one of the oddest of any in the last 30 years or so. Born in 1937 he began -- as a child of his generation --- with hardline academic modernism (American version). In his 20's he produced a handful of instrumental works and five inspired by James Joyce-- two sets of songs with piano, then the three on this disc whose accompaniment expands from the string quartet to the large chamber ensemble; then The Last Gospel (1967) which, uniquely, quarries the New Testament. Thereafter with only a few exceptions he has devoted his enormous talents to settings (spoken, sung, and symphonic) of texts drawn from Lewis Carroll's two Alice books, sometimes with elaborate surrounding paraphernalia (e.g. the originals of Carroll's parodies); the series runs all the way from Pot-Pourri of 1968 (which also throws in a Catholic Marian Litany and a German Protestant Chorale) to Dum Dee Tweedle, an opera, still in progress at the time of writing. The style over this quarter-century of Alice-obsession has moves steadily away from the initial atonal constructivism towards an ever more ardent embrace of tonality in its high romantic tumescence and fin-de-siècle decline and fall. And the change of idiom has been matched by a change of scale. The first wholly Carroll piece, The Lobster Quadrille of 1969, clocks in at 13 minutes. Final Alice (1974-75) proved to be the decisive stylistic turning point (and never was an adjective more inappropriate!); it lasts over an hour and gives D-major the most protracted work-out it has ever received. And Child Alice (1977-781) at some 2 1/4 hours, requires a whole concert to itself.
But this later development is unforeseeable from the vantage-point of the present disc, which collects most of Del Tredici's music from the first phase -- modernist and Joyce-inspired works from 1960-66. His use of Joyce is paradoxical. It is true that the writer's principle fame rests upon his monumental contribution to pioneering modernism, and that Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are (among much else) textbook instances of pattern-making and schematization. But Joyce's earlier prose (Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist) is not all so inclined, while his verse, mainly earlier still, is completely traditional. Chamber Music (published 1907) collects 36 delicate lovelyrics in the spirit of the English Elizabethans and Jacobeans and the idiom of the Anglo-Irish 1890s. And the only experimental feature about the 13 items gathered in Pomes Penyeach (published 1927, but written mainly 1912-18) is the title's Joycespeak spelling; the idiom is analogous the the imagism of the early Ezra Pound. Ecce Puer is separate, and so pure in its language as to belong to no style at all; these four tiny quatrains were written on the very day in 1932 that the poet's grandson was born, less than two months after the unassuaged death of his father, guiltily abandoned in Ireland. All Joyce's poems, this (his last) most clearly, are born of direct emotion expressed in simple if highly-crafted form. It's rather touching that the European avant-garde of the 1950-60s set them so often under the deluded impression that, being Joyce, they must belong in the forefront of experimental audacity!
This context is given to show just how strangely Del Tredici treats his texts. Ecce Puer most, the other poems all to some degrees, are set in a manner that apparently contraverts their direct affectingness. Yet the way the music takes off from hints and suggestions in the poems' imagery has an eccentric logic and integrity of its own, which is soon to find a wholly concordant partner in the verbal, visual and conceptual play of the author of Alice. And a couple of then-recent precedents come to mind -- Stravinsky's refusal to indulge in expressive underlining of his texts equally with Webern's quasi-medieval use of verse, however highly-charged its emotion, as the centre around which to form a basically instrumental crystal of constructivism.
Del Tredici's 20's coincided, of course, with the Age of Webern. Of that universal plague of pointillist textures from 3-and-4-note cells -- the hopeless endeavor to adapt for general purposes what was in fact a style of extreme mannerism -- very little now survives. The strange seed has only flourished when falling on soil already halfway or more prepared to receive it-- Dallapiccola, Boulez, Ligeti, Kúrtag, and supremely, the late Stravinsky Some of these early pieces of Del Tredici belong, I believe, in this same rare territory of composers who made a genuine continuity out from Webern's influence.
Del Tredici's catalogue reveals that the next three years [after Scherzo] were devoted to an unfinished, unpublished string quartet. Whether or not these efforts were salvaged for it, it is certain that the next completed work I Hear an Army (1964) embeds the vocal part within an almost symphonic structure for string quartet alone. And its techniques, and the sound they make, are already echt and could not be mistaken for the work of any other composer. The poem is the last in Joyce's Chamber Music, standing out in its sustained surreal violence from that otherwise fragile context. The composer's own note is helpful:
"The poem itself is a description of a nightmare, growing steadily more terrifying as it progresses. The sleeper is finally frightened into wakefulness but instead of relief feels only the despair of a love lost.
"My conception of this dramatic episode suggested to me the three part, though continuous, form of the piece:
"1. A long introduction for strings alone, sempre agitato, with the motives, which are to be important later, presented in a half formed, fleeting manner -- an image of troubled sleep, not yet crystallized into the terrifying clarity of a nightmare.
"2. The nightmare itself -- a setting of the poem for soprano and strings.
"3. A postlude for strings alone, in which the nightmarish activity grows dimmer and dimmer, as the imagined terrors recede during wakefulness. But ever present in this fading way, is one single, insistent note B -- a symbol of the sleeper's poignant, unrelenting loneliness, which remains undimmed to the end."
Everything implicit in the Scherzo comes to life. The virtuoso mastery of post-Webern facture now achieves its opposite, long breathed musical paragraphs, turbulent and tumultuous in movement. Del Tredici's compositional mainstays -- augmentation and diminution and every kind of canon -- provide new varieties of tension and Angst: a needle-sharp ear is composing needles and knives. Especially notable is the large-scale harmonic control, difficult to manage in a style of such instability. The climax on the unison B, picking up the voice's last word, is massive in context, and reached by genuine harmonic means; the subsequent slowing-down of speed and harmonic rate, with ensuing liquidation of material, is masterly in more than merely academic terms. Also born here is the unmistakeable "cruelty to sopranos" vocal writing, with its insatiate demands upon tessitura, diction, nimbleness, and sheer stamina.
Night Conjure-Verse, following on the next year (1965) confidently takes the same textures and procedes far further. The texts of its two movements, Simples and A Memory of the Players in a Mirror at Midnight, come from Pomes Penyeach. Del Tredici's own notes say that he began with the second. He was fascinated by its mirror-imagery, so central to his technique already. It suggested the setting for two voices, a principle soprano and her reflection (counter-tenor or mezzo-soprano), also the layout of instrumental forces in two "choirs", string quartet and wind septet. Words are endlessly re-iterated in kaleidoscopic splinterings -- see e.g. the treatment of the line "love's breath in you is stale, worded or sung." The instrumental fabric, sometimes coming to the fore in voiceless interludes, is rife with learned devices. The second stanza begins as a Cadenza for the soprano while her "echo" remains fixated upon phrases from the first. Another interlude leads to a renewed assault upon the first stanza's first line (dislocating the same music) before resuming with the second stanza, concentrating for some time on hissing repetition of its first word this in ever-madder bouts of fragmentation, with pluck set "like crazy laughter". The half-expected unison climax comes sure enough -- on the second syllable of devour, first the two voices, joined by horn and strings (one by one), terminating in an outburst of mirrors gradually augmenting and liquidating to wind down into the glacial opening bars in exact reverse. Articulation is exaggerated throughout; the horn must often be "brassy", the oboe and clarinet must often raise their bells, the strings are frequently required to snap their pizzicati, hit hard with the wood of the bow, play "molto sul ponticello", the piccolo nearly splits the ceiling, most of the copious notes have an emphatic aggressive accent (and sometimes several at once.)
The overall effect, though violent and frightening, is also one of extreme control. The Players' harsh actions and these actions' multifold reflections, are held in the tight bond of a jack-in-the-box; coiled to spring. It is surely part of his attraction to this poem that what was soon to become Del Tredici's musical logo (the number 13 which spells his name as obviously as the BACH motif spells Bach's) occurs in Joyce's second line. The word (thirteen) is not emphasized; the voices sing it only once in its proper place, and it recurs only en passant during the Cadenza as the "echo"-voice recycles phrases from stanza I. We are still as yet a long way from the obsessive signing-off to be heard in Final Alice, et al!
The first movement, Simples, is suitably more gentle and lyrical. The shadow-voice has the first verse to herself: the soprano joins "as if from afar" for the second, in rhythmically and intervallically proportional canon, whose purpose is revealed when the mezzo sings the Italian original of the child's air (given by Joyce as motto at the head of the poem), answered by the soprano singing in English. The third verse is set to busier texture bristling with devices now becoming familiar. Prophetic is the way, after the inevitable unison (on her), that the last line, sung by mezzo-only, is shadowed by a molto espressivo horn solo, persisting to the end after the voice has ceased, amidst the gradually disintegrating tissue of bristling processes.
Prophetic -- because the very layout of Del Tredici's next work, Syzygy (1966) places the (single) soprano with a solo horn and an extended set of tubular bells in contradistinction to the ensemble of 8 woodwinds, 2 trumpets, and 6 solo strings. Here fearful symmetry reigns supreme, and the title conveys it from the start. Syzygy, the word, that is a juicy tongueful simply to pronounce, means something equally succulent to the mind; the term is mainly used in astronomy to signify the conjunction of opposite points in a planetary orbit; further connotations run to any kind of yoking together (including copulation), and comparable devices in metrical structure -- a gift to the kind of composer so conspicuously represented by David Del Tredici! Syzygy, the piece, is wholly and brilliantly about itself and its own processes. Whether it is equally well-paired with the Joycean poems is a matter of doubt that disappears under the astonishing impact of its structure and the sounds wherein its structures are realized
The work comes in two parts. The first, a relatively brief setting of Ecce Puer, lays out its own procedure so clearly that it can be apprehended in part even at first go by the ear alone. It begins with a space wider than most grand pianos, on the piccolo's uppermost note and the double-bassoon's nethermost. The gap is gradually closed by further mirroring pairs of instruments. The voices and bells enter together on the same note (though soon getting slightly out of rhythmic step); the horn takes over from the voice after the poem's first line, then hands it back for the second. The third begins and ends with trills on with and grief, between them comes two bars of high-arching melodization of the two possible whole-tone scales, for joy; the quatrain's fourth line is again set to one note shared between voice, horn and bells. Then follows an instrumental intermezzo whose texture is a tissue of self-echoes accompanying tritone motifs on the solo horn. Quatrain 2 begins very low and slow in the voice, surrounded by heterophony (viola and cello), simultaneous mirror-shapes (2 violins) and overlapping tritones (clarinet, bassoon); note-values diminish rapidly, the horn takes over the voice-part after the first pair of lines, then hands it back for the second pair, piccolo (later solo flute also) mirror the soloists about a mile above; by the quatrains last word eyes, the soprano has reached her top. The first trumpet, entering for the first time, takes her final note up a notch and holds to it tightly, helped out by the second trumpeter as the entire structure turns in its orbit (for score-followers the moment is marked by the title word in CAPS). Thence the process so far is run in reverse; the trumpets yield the high note back to the voice's descending setting of the third quatrain ("young life is breathed..." etc.) ; then comes the instrumental intermezzo with horn solo, backwards and with woodwinds and strings interchanged. For the last quatrain the composer has to adjust a little; voice and horn are swapped round for the two repeated-note places (and its four-note rhythm necessitates spoiling the five syllables of Joyce's original: "a child is sleeping."); in the penultimate line she trills on O and the second syllable of forsaken; between them father is set to the two whole-tone hexachords; and two intonations of solo horn enclose the setting of the poem's desolating final line. The postlude reverses the prelude exactly except, again, for the exchange of woodwinds and strings, so the vast closing empty space is encompassed by violin harmonics at the top and the specially down-tuned double-bass (no doubt to achieve a more reliable pianissimo than the initial piccolo/double-bassoon).
Such description, though it corresponds to what the listener can genuinely hear, merely scratches the surface of what's going on in the organization of Ecce Puer. And it would be totally self-defeating in Syzygy's second part, Nightpiece. The three brief stanzas of Joyce's original (from Pomes) form the basis of a structure lasting over 18 minutes. Its processes again consist of a myriad smaller symmetries within larger ones, now greatly more complex as well as more prolonged. To them can be added the more thoroughgoing use of a game already used in all these works; progressive dimunition and augmentation of repeated material. The effect has been well described in John Adams's original notes for this work: "one feels caught in some sort of inexorable vice only to be let out bit by bit as the point of maximum compression gradually yields back to the original." The idea of splitting the soprano into two voices, low and high in dialogue, is here explicit for the first time (though latent in all the vocal writings so far -- it comes first with the treatment of faint illume, and is applied later to waste of souls and other phrases. The horn is similarly "split", and so are the bells (which requires two players). The actual moment of SYZYGY occurs on the word tolls (though of course every note in the entire 18 minutes is part of some symmetrical process). The expected massive unison follows soon after; here it is staggered against itself in heterophony, before the voice completes the setting of the poem with its last three lines. Then comes the Cadenza (an idea picked up from Night Conjure-Verse). Now that the entire poem has been heard, phrase by phrase eliciting a new handling, the Cadenza goes back, to combine the first 3 lines of each of the three stanzas (except in every case their final word) over a 4-note horn ostinato whose rhythm expands and contracts. After a long silence the missing last words are released, very fast and soft, and in reverse order -- tolls, till, wave. The soprano reiterates them in various patterns as the tutti resumes, ending on tolls. And it is clearly the bells in the poem which have inspired the bell-halo surrounding the voice almost without respite, and persisting to the very end on the piece after she and the horn solo have fallen silent (dead of exhaustion?!) and the symmetrics complete themselves in the ensemble.
The sonority is also remarkable in every other respect. Mr. Adams's note is good here too: "Del Tredici has chosen a timbral combination that highlights the gaunt, skeletal imagery of the poem. Only the soloists -- soprano and horn -- have any softness to their sound. The rest of the ensemble, from the piercing highs of the piccolo and solo violins to the reptilian slitherings of the double reeds emphasizes a stark but brilliant sound quality."
The result, when combined with the virtuoso extremity of the voice-part and the extreme discipline of the structural organization, is without precedent save marginally in Webern's songs with clarinets and such skintight passages of Copland as the Organ Symphony scherzo and the gunfight in Billy the Kid. And without parallel except in certain English music from the same years, the squeaky sound of early Birtwhistle and Maxwell Davies, whom Del Tredici surpasses in single-minded extremeness, cutting edge, tightness of discipline, and aural accuracy. This music is so superbly "heard" as to make everyone else in the same field seem by comparison approximate; and also half-cock. What happens when this ear and technique hit the sitting duck of tonal cliché is already a matter of history. And what will happen after this remains to be heard!

--Written by Robin Holloway. Copyright 1990, CRI. Used with permission.

CD Information

I Hear an Army, Night Conjure-Verse and Syzygy are available on "American Masters: Del Tredici," Composers Recordings Inc. #689. The disc ends with Scherzo, a short piece for four-hand piano dating from 1960. It may be ordered through Amazon.com below.

American Masters - David Del Tredici: I Hear An Army, Night Conjure-Verse, Syzygy
David Del Tredici (Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1995

--A. Ruch
5 January 2001
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