I’m back from Lubbock, Texas, where I gave a speech at Texas Tech that by all accounts went over well, ate really excellent Mexican food, and paid an afternoon visit to the Buddy Holly Center, a charming and classy little museum that reminded me of how much I like Holly’s music. On top of all this, I received an e-mail from Paul Moravec, my operatic collaborator, that made my day.
As I announced back in April, Paul and I have been spending the past few months hard at work on a brand-new piece—but it’s not an opera. Here’s the scoop:
My old friend John Sinclair is celebrating his twenty-fifth anniversary as artistic director of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, about whose activities I’ve previously written in this space. John is a conductor of real quality who has turned the Bach Festival Society’s choir and orchestra into ensembles of distinction and consequence, and so the festival has decided to honor him by commissioning a work for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Paul and I, to our delight, will be writing it together….
The piece will be a setting by Paul of a poem called “Music, Awake!” that I started writing when I went to Baylor University last October to give a pair of lectures about Louis Armstrong and Whit Stillman. It’s a six-stanza choric ode to the universal power of music that was inspired by the transformation scene from The Winter’s Tale, a Shakespearean moment that Paul and I both love: Music, awake her; strike!/’Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;/Strike all that look upon with marvel.
Well, it was time for me to marvel on Wednesday afternoon, for Paul sent me an e-mail containing the piano score of the first six minutes of our new piece, accompanied by a sound file containing a synthesized version of the music. I downloaded the sound file at once and started listening to it, and seconds later I was covered with goosebumps.
To hear your words newly set to music by a composer of the first rank is an unrivaled and incomparable thrill. It is, however, a thrill whose nature is surprisingly hard to explain to anyone who isn’t a musician. I did my best to describe the sensation when, two years ago, Paul and I were working on our third opera, The King’s Man:
Even if, like me, you’re a trained musician who has dabbled in composition, you simply can’t imagine how it feels when music—especially the music of a major composer like Paul—is added to something that you’ve written. It’s more than just a matter of superimposing a layer of color, in the way that a black-and-white film can be electronically “colorized” after the fact. What is added is meaning.
That’s how I felt when I listened for the first time to the opening section of Paul’s setting of Music, Awake! Right from the initiating musical gesture, it has a propulsive sweep that made me sit bolt upright and catch my breath. Most exciting of all was his brilliantly apposite setting of my favorite couplet from the poem, Magnify the world of all we hear and see/With the perfect truth of harmony. As we say in the music business, he nailed it. (And yes, I was thinking of Milton—as well as Mark Morris—when I wrote that couplet.)
Life can be difficult beyond belief, but moments like this one redeem every frustration and make the rough places plain.
A footnote: Music, Awake! will be premiered in Winter Park, Florida, on April 16. Two days later I drive from there to West Palm Beach to start rehearsing my Palm Beach Dramaworks production of Satchmo at the Waldorf. That promises to be quite a weekend.