This was an enigmatic CD to review. On the one hand the texts
set by John Corigliano include some of my favourite poems from
the works of Dylan Thomas. In fact, it was a reading of the author’s
Poem in October that introduced me to his writings. Since
finding a copy of the ‘Collected Poems’ in a Glasgow second-hand
book shop, I soon found that the bleaker Poem on His Birthday
and the more summery Fern Hill were also moving and important
contributions to British literature. Therefore, as soon as I saw
this CD, I knew that at least the words set were right up my street.
I have never (knowingly)
heard any music by Mr. Corigliano. There is no particular reason
for this, save it is not possible to know the music of every
composer, and I guess I have just not got round to exploring,
or even discovering his music. So this was going to be an adventure
in more ways than one.
Having decided that
the text was impressive, I was a little disconcerted by the
scale and form of the work. Three things niggled me. Firstly,
it appeared to be a piece that had been written over a considerable
period of time (1959-1999) – so nearly forty years. I wondered
what would be the impact of the composer’s musical development
on the sum of the parts. Secondly I noticed that the work was
long – nearly 67 minutes for four poems set. I asked myself
if it would hold my attention. Lastly I read that there were
narrated sections of the work alongside settings for baritone,
tenor and boy soprano and chorus. I wondered what the formal
balance would be like, whether it would be internally consistent.
And finally I listened
to the piece – straight through, giving it my best shot, no
distractions. I should not have liked it. As I listened, everything
in me kept telling me that it was too disjointed and too diverse
in style. In fact, it often seems to be parodying other genres;
it is in danger of becoming one long “stylistic caricature".
Yet I was totally blown away by it. It is stunning, impressive,
wonderful, beautiful, disturbing and virtually every other adjective
I can think of. It is somehow or other, a masterpiece.
Its history is complicated.
The first section to be written and played was Fern Hill,
which was composed in 1959-60 when Corigliano was only 22 years
old. He wrote that what captivated him about these words were
the poet’s ‘young and easy’ summers on the farm of the same
Ten years later
the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center requested a
new work for its opening season. This time the composer chose
Poem in October. Five years later, after a deal of personal
disappointments the composer decided to set the dark Poem
on his Birthday. In this poem Dylan Thomas does not celebrate
his age, but ‘spurns it’. Corigliano believed that he had completed
the Trilogy. In 1976, the work was premiered in the Washington
However, the music
did not remain static. Fortunately the composer’s life situation
improved and he began to feel at peace with himself. He notes
that now he did not feel the work was either emotionally or
formally complete. He believed that the Poem in October
and Fern Hill were “both pastorals, [and] sounded too
similar to each other to be effective played consecutively,
and yet too different from the mature setting of Poem on
His Birthday to which they should lead”.
So in the late 1990s,
Corigliano completed the work. He realised that although he
had written an oratorio, it did in fact have operatic overtones.
He decided to introduce an adult (the narrator and baritone)
to interpret his ‘future through his past’. The two ‘pastoral’
poems would then come to be seen as memories and not as ‘real-time’
events. Therefore, the listener has to understand them from
the perspective of the Birthday poem. To make this transition
formally sound Corigliano chose a new text from Dylan Thomas
to link the original three movements together. He chose Thomas’s
penultimate work, the Author’s Prologue to The Collected
Poems. This gave the final structure and form to this wide-ranging
What is this work
all about? It is really a journey – from birth to death. It
represents the three stages of Manhood. In its final form, the
work opens with the Sir Thomas Allen, as narrator and singer,
a large chorus and orchestra exploring ‘This day winding down
now, At God speeded summer’s end …’ Then follows the beautiful
Fern Hill scored for chamber orchestra and boy soprano.
This is truly pastoral music that sounds more like Vaughan Williams
(but not quite) than American avant-garde! Pierre Ruhe in the
Washington Post (March 1999) suggested that the music has “familiar
homespun chord progressions, so fresh and innocently American.
Musically the Welsh countryside is nowhere in sight.” The second
part of the Prologue is in complete contrast. Much more
modern sounding music well parodies the ‘hullaballoing clan,
Agape with woe …’ The Poem in October seems to owe much
to the styles of Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky. It is
very thoughtful music that explores the thought of this poem
in a sympathetic way. There are many very beautiful passages
Lastly the Poem
on his Birthday. This is the longest section of the work.
Richard Whitehouse quoted in a review on these pages has suggested
that this section “sounds like the undigested influence of Britten’s
War Requiem at key junctures”. I believe that this is
an appropriate comparison. Yet, I consider that this music works
and gives an impressive and inspiring – if somewhat challenging
- conclusion to Corigliano’s massive meditation on the poems
of Dylan Thomas and the journey from life to death.
In spite of the
eclectic nature of this music, the fact that one minute it can
sound like Britten’s Spring Symphony and another like
Sir Paul McCartney’s Standing Stone, somehow it works
as a piece of music. It is superbly performed by the soloists,
the Nashville Symphony and their conductor Leonard Slatkin.
There appears to be an inherent, but largely intangible constructive
principle that stops this work descending into a series of disjointed
tableaux. I cannot quite fathom what it is - it is probable
that it is Dylan Thomas’s poetry that acts as the common thread.
I feel the same
way about this piece that I did after first hearing William
Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience: I am in the
presence of a great work, which somehow should not be a masterpiece,
but actually is. Herein lies the enigma.