Program Notes for Gideon’s “Of Shadows Numberless”

January 18, 2011 at 2:33 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Miriam Gideon’s Of Shadows Numberless takes its title from a phrase in John Keats’ poem, Ode to a Nightingale, and each of its six movements, likewise, draws inspiration from a phrase in Keats’ work. Ode to a Nightingale addresses the popular Romantic trope of a bird as an idealized version of a poet, a version who – according to Shelley’s analogous work, To a Skylark – “pourest [his] full heart in profuse strains of unpremeditated art,” or according to Wordsworth’s To a Cuckoo, is “an invisible thing / a voice, a mystery.”[1] Keats’ poem focuses on the bird-poet dichotomy by following the fanciful journey of a depressed subject who is thrown into further despair when confronted with the unreachable beauty of the nightingale’s “plaintive anthem.”

The first movement, “…Magic casements opening on seas of perilous foam,” establishes the main theme of the music; the poetic line, itself, speaks of the timelessness of the bird’s song, and happens to be one of two passages that Rudyard Kipling selected as the best in all poetry. [2] The wild, jaunty, slightly drunken second movement is titled “the blushful Hippocrene,” a phrase taken from a stanza about wine, which finds the subject – who has discussed several emollients that might ease his spiritual pain – contemplating drowning his troubled consciousness in the “beaded bubbles” of a “draught of vintage”; the Hippocrene provides another kind of drink – it’s the mythical fountain which supposedly endows its drinkers with poetic inspiration. The third movement recapitulates the main theme of the first but in triple time, whereas the fourth is a flighty, onomatopoeic realization of “the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.”[3] In the fifth movement, entitled “white hawthorne and the pastoral eglantine,” a phrase from a stanza about the power of sightless vision,[4] the music formulates an opaque, mysterious mist, while a single-note melody cuts through like a ray of light. The finale, “Adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades…”, displaces the main theme throughout the pianist’s hands, making the notes seem to coalesce into a melody of their own volition; the title is from the poem’s final stanza, in which the bird fades into the “near meadows” and “over the still stream” and both the music and poetry create a palpable feeling of spatial distance, as though the bird’s music really is fading away.

The piece, like the poem, is full of shadows and mazes. Whereas Keats writes of “verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways,” and “fad[ing] away into the forest dim,” Gideon writes dense, dark music filled with half-step, major seventh, and minor ninth relationships, crowded clusters, and incessantly mumbling inner voices. Although the melodies are tuneful and usually simple, Gideon often includes some oddity in the phrasing or intervallic structure that makes the tune feel just out of reach, transported a step beyond the realm of ordinary music.

[1] Besides their spontaneous and unselfconscious vocalizations, birds present a poetic ideal because they literally soar higher and higher, physically embodying their abstract accomplishment –lifting the spirits of those around them with song.

[2] Kipling selects this line along with one that precedes it and three from Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and says, “In all the millions permitted there are no more than five—five little lines—of which one can say, ‘These are the magic. These are the vision. The rest is only Poetry.’”

[3] An onomatopoeic phrase itself – think of the low hum of “murmurous” and the buzz of the “s”es in “flies on summer eves.”

[4] (“I cannot see what flowers are at my feet / Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs / But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet…”)


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