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Welcome to the Poe Conference: Bad-Ass Paintings and a Raven

So busy at the Poe Studies Conference that I couldn't find time to post about it while it was going on, so you'll have to settle for recaps all this week.  On Thurday the opening night performance of Gerald Elias' "The Raven: a Monodrama" was held at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  We hobnobbed and talked Poeish subjects among the spectacular paintings in their gallery, including Thomas Eakins' portrait of Uncle Walt, Edward Hicks' "Peaceable Kingdom," and Benjamin West's massive (15ft X 25ft) magnificently bad-ass "Death on a Pale Horse."actual painting a lot more bad-ass than this image (click to enlarge) 

After our welcome by conference co-chairs Barbara Cantalupo and Stephen Rachman, and a word from Janine Pollock, Head of the Rare Book Dept at the Free Library of Phila, we listened to Elias' wonderful composition played by Elias on viola, Ruby Chou on piano and mezzo-soprano Stina Eberhardt.  The performance was dramatic and brilliant in places.  You can download a live clip from a previous performance at Elias' website.  Here's Elias on how he came to write the piece:

     Appropriately enough, the relentlessly persistent melodic motive of "The Raven" came to me in a dream.  I actually hauled myself out of bed in the middle of the night to write it down in my notebook.  When the next morning in great anticipation I looked at it in the cold light of day I saw that rather than being the most sublime melody ever conceived, as I had initially thought, it was instead the most banal. 

     Years went by and I was invited to compose "The Raven for a Utah Symphony Halloween program.  I consulted my notebook and from all the bits and pieces of musical ideas I had jotted down decided it was that dream melody, because of its very childishness, that made it perfect for the piece.  After all, doesn’t every children’s fairy tale begin with “Once upon a....?”  And because in the poem Poe explores so many facets of a single shattered monomaniacal personality, I chose to use variations of this theme as the narrator moves from playfulness to pathos to savagery and to ultimate despair.   

Elias in actionBefore the performance I asked Gerald Elias a few questions:

How did your Raven composition come about? 

The Utah Symphony plays an annual Halloween concert, and for years the repertoire tended to become repetitious--Night on Bald Mountain, Phantom of the Opera, various John Williams pieces, etc.  I thought it would be good to do something different, perhaps a bit more serious, so I proposed The Raven project to the Symphony.  It also happened to be (if a remember correctly) approximately the 150th anniversary of the poem The Raven, so the timing seemed auspicious. The Symphony agreed and we performed the original version (Baritone and full orchestra) in October, 2000.  I wasn't overly pleased with the result as there was only one brief rehearsal for the piece, which, unknown to the musicians, would have benefitedfrom more familiarity.  Also, the piece was performed with the conductor wearing a gorilla costume, which made visual contact with the baritone soloist somewhat problematic.

Were you inspired by Poe’s poem?  Is your composition a response? an adaptation? Homage? 

I'm not a particularly literary person, especially in regard to poetry, so what attracted me to The Raven was much more pragmatic.  It is perhaps the most famous American poem of all time, and doubtlessly the most popular under the heading of the macabre.  On many levels it comes across wonderfully to audiences of all ages, and, with its relentless rhythm and incisive, colorative text, lends itself well to a musical adaptation.  

What is its performance history so far?  And has it been or will it be recorded? 

The Raven has received that one performance in its original version.  The performance at the Poe Conference will be the second in its revised version for Mezzo-soprano, Viola, and Piano.  There has been no commercial recording of it, but there is a live performance recording of both versions. 

Can you tell me a little about how (and by whom) it will be performed at the Poe Conference?  

One of the pluses of converting the piece to a chamber ensemble version is that it is performed in a chamber, bringing the performers and audience  into a setting not unlike the one in which the singer/narrator of The Raven finds him/herself.  This also enables the singer to interact with the audience, which Stina intends to do at the Poe Conference performance. Our incomparable Mezzo-soprano is Stina Eberhardt, the pianist is Ruby Chou, (both of Salt Lake City), and I will be playing the viola.  The decision to revise the vocal part to mezzo-soprano from baritone came about after further consideration of the text of the poem.  On the most superficial level it certainly seems like the poem is a story about a man with a lost love, Lenore.  As one digs deeper into the text, however, the psychological themes of betrayal, loss, revenge, and finally abject resignation emerge as a much more universal set of feelings.  Perhaps the "story" of The Raven is about the very nature of the human condition.  Hence, the decision for the more androgynous vocal range of mezzo-soprano which encompasses us all. 

In a letter to James Russell Lowell in 1844, Poe wrote, “I am profoundly excited by music, and by some poems, ­ those of Tennyson especially,­ whom, with Keats, Shelley, Coleridge (occasionally), and a few others of like thought and expression, I regard as the sole poets. Music is the perfection of the soul, or idea, of Poetry. The vagueness of exaltation aroused by a sweet air (which should be strictly indefinite and never too strongly suggestive) is precisely what we should aim at in poetry. Affectation, within bounds, is thus no blemish.” Music is the perfection of the soul, or idea, of Poetry.  In Poe’s conception, music perfects poetry.  How do you interpret this passage?  

That is a tough one!  I don't think Poe is talking of adapting a poem to music in order to make it better.  I think what he's saying is that the unique quality of music to arouse a certain emotional response precisely because it does not have words should be emulated by the poet.  In other words, the "musical" aspects of the poem--rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, inflection, choice of consonants and vowels in the aural sense--all should be used to enhance the meaning of the words themselves. 

Poe’s mother was a celebrated singer on the stage.  Poe’s young wife, Virginia first exhibited signs of her tuberculosis while singing before Edgar.  In several of his tales, music haunts the characters.  Poe’s poem, “The Bells,” is a frenetic, almost maddening song.  And “The Raven” itself begins with a kind of musical tapping (and the narrator eventually goes mad).  Do you think music came to represent something maddening or, at least melancholic, to Poe? 

This is hard for me to say, not knowing all that much about Poe.  Certainly the personality of a great writer or composer is reflected in his work.  How could it be otherwise?  At the same time, one thing that defines a great writer or composer is his ability to create a unique and complete world in every individual work.  As a result, Beethoven could compose his Second Symphony, a lyrical and almost jovial masterpiece at a time in his life when he was in the depths of despair over his looming deafness, because he pre-determined a set of musical parameters for that piece and drawing upon his genius, stuck to them.  Likewise, I would imagine Poe understood very well what images and associations from his own life experience evoked a powerful response, and combined with his skilled craftsmanship as a wordsmith was able to invest each of his great literary works with the feeling that it was almost autobiographical. 

How aware were you of Poe’s works before you began your composition?  Can you tell me a story about when you first read or discovered Poe?  

When I was a kid I especially enjoyed reading short stories--everything from O. Henry to Kipling to Maugham to Poe.  As opposed to reading a novel, which at my tender age seemed too monumental a challenge to undertake, a short story distills the author's vision with concise clarity.  For me at that time it was the perfect literary genre.  Some of the first short stories of Poe's that I read--"The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Cask of Amontillado", "The Telltale Heart"--in one of those fake leather heirloom editions, all left a very lasting impression.  One haunting image that has stayed with me all these years--of the jingling bells of the fool's cap as a brick wall is being erected around its wearer, entombing him in the "Cask of Amontillado"--continues to remind me what a genius Poe was in selecting imagery that goes directly to the depths of our souls.

Elias is also the winner of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for 2009 with his new mystery novel, Devil's Trill.  I'll post about that a little later in the week.             

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Reader Comments (2)

Great interview--how on earth did you manage to have that conversation with all the hustle and bustle?
October 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterS.J. Chambers
We did that interview by email before the conference. I did talk to him before the performance but that was mostly about his new mystery novel, Devil's Trill, which I will be posting about shortly.
October 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterEd Pettit

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