‘String Quartet no. 1: Mosaic of Myself: A Walt Whitman Experience’ featuring baritone by Felix Jarrar
Text adapted from the work of Walt Whitman
II. Melodrama I
III. Instrumental Interlude I (Intermezzo)
IV. Melodrama II (with singing)
V. Instrumental Interlude II (Reprise)
VI. Aria-Finale: ‘There is that in me'
While working on my opera, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, Brendan Speltz and Andrew Janss, the violinist and cellist in the production, asked me if I'd be interested in writing a string quartet that they would premiere at the end of the year. This was a huge honor for me. I've always wanted to write one, and had practiced writing for the ensemble for many years. I started work on the project in the early summer. The tragic shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando in June left me devastated, as a gay POC and an American. I found solace through poetry, specifically while reading “When I heard at the close of the day” by Walt Whitman. I was never a huge fan of Whitman in college, but after the recent tragedy, I felt the text was moving and relevant to today. I immediately wanted to set it to music as a melodrama. My desire to set this text led me to research his entire poetic oeuvre and create a text for the quartet that was entirely adapted from his poetry.
The work, my first string quartet, is a thus homage to the work of Walt Whitman. I chose to call it a mosaic since it's a work with a variety of musical material that I juxtapose to create different moods. The text for the work consists of adapted settings of Whitman’s poetry. The two melodramas in this work are set as spoken rhythmic patterns between the four instrumentalists of the quartet. I chose to do this because the number four was significant to Walt Whitman (see his poem ‘Chanting the Square Deific’). Different elements of his ‘square deific’ are embodied in the expressive aspects of the music that accompanies the players’ spoken narration.
The work begins with an introductory theme that sets the mood for the first melodrama. The text of this melodrama is a combination of Whitman's personal notes and a setting of 'When I heard at the close of the day' from 'Leaves of Grass'. This famous poem discusses how companionship and love with another man made him happy when he was younger. He reminisces on a type of love that society did not accept during his lifetime. My manic text-setting compliments the romantic nature of the melodic material and shows the narrating voice’s inner turmoil. This melodrama also includes the line, "I am that I am", from William Shakespeare's Sonnet 121. This line fits the mood of "When I heard at the close of the day" and the general tone of the entire work. After this melodrama, there is an instrumental interlude and cadenza for cello that set the mood for the second melodrama. This text is an adaptation of Whitman’s poem 'Death's Valley', which was one of the last poems he wrote before his death. The speaker in the poem is not afraid of death. The waltz the baritone hums shows his indifference to it. However, different parts of the music in this melodrama show the pain the narrating voice secretly harbors as he approaches his end. Following this movement, there is a second instrumental interlude which recaps the melodic material of the introduction. This interlude leads to the lyrical I perspective of the baritone in the sixth and final movement of the piece, an Aria-Finale, which is a setting of section 50 of Whitman’s masterpiece, 'Song of Myself'. Section 50 of 'Song of Myself' talks about 'it', or one’s transcendence of the physical world. The movement closes with the baritone singing the word ‘happiness’’ over music that is anything but happy - happiness is something that the baritone searches for inside himself, through love, through death, and the beyond.
My first string quartet is scheduled to be premiered on Saturday December 10th, 2016 at 7 pm in the crypt of The Church of the Intercession (W 155th St and Broadway, NY, NY 10032). The suggested donation is $20, and all proceeds go to GLAAD. I hope to see you there.
Felix Jarrar is a composer and pianist that is currently based in Brooklyn.