for 2 violas, 6 cellos and doublebass
Approximate duration: 12 minutes
Premiere: February, 1991
The Mannes College of Music
New York City
It's regrettable how many opportunities in life one passes up or postpones on the assumption that they will always be available. One of the bigger regrets in my life was not fulfilling a request for some songs while I was in conservatory from a fellow student, a young soprano named Erin Kalibat, who possessed one of the loveliest and most natural voices I’ve ever heard. Unbeknownst to most of us, Erin struggled with epilepsy. During the winter of 1990 she suffered a particularly bad seizure, resulting in a coma from which it was deemed recovery was not possible, and her family removed her from life support. The death of a classmate and one of whom many were so fond was a profoundly traumatic and affecting experience for the school, particularly for the student composers, of whom she had been a staunch champion. The school naturally held a memorial, and without even thinking about it almost all the student composers contributed pieces for it.
The impetus for my own piece came from several sources. One, pragmatically, was that Mannes possessed an enviable group of cellists, all students of the renowned Timothy Eddy. Another was to posthumously fulfill Erin’s request by contributing an instrumental “song without words”: hence the title, Cantilena. These two impulses coalesced in my mind immediately after visiting Erin in the hospital, still hoping that a miracle recovery was possible. I can still remember waiting for the bus in a state of heartbreak after that visit, on the corner of 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City, a few blocks south of the hospital where she was housed, and the entire opening argument of Cantilena coming to me as it currently stands. At the time it didn’t occur to me that there would be a need for a piece to memorialize her. When that did become finalized, the material was already there, and only required expansion. If I remember correctly I completed the work in about six days, and scored it in two. Profound emotional affect can be extraordinarily productive.
Over the years I have become much more sceptical about leaving such instances of “inspiration” unaltered or unquestioned. At the time and under the circumstances, accepting - indeed celebrating - the material exactly as it had come to me seemed not only a gift but mandatory to honor what my affection for Erin had produced.
The entire school became involved in the memorial in one way or another, and performers eagerly agreed to participate, so getting the necessary cellists was easy. As the performance neared, two had to withdraw due to professional commitments, and with no more cellists in the school, I was forced to recast the top two voices for violas, a development which I think ultimately enhances the piece, plus affording an opportunity of adding in my favorite string instrument.
It had originally been my goal for the piece to be performed conductorless, but during the sole rehearsal prior to the performance it became clear that this was impractical and I would be forced to make my conducting debut. Coming towards the end of winter and amidst the punishing schedule that most music students endure, the day of the memorial found the entire ensemble in various stages of illness, including the composer / conductor who was bedridden for several days after. Hence I have no recollection of performing the piece at all, and am often amazed listening to the original recording that it went as well as it did, if somewhat sluggish.
Cantilena is an unabashed threnody, cast in a simple ternary form. The first section is built of an undulating, descending arpeggio figure in the three top cellos supporting a short, rising line and filigree work in the two violas. In the second section a full-blooded melody of lament is announced, first by soloists and then by the entire ensemble, from which slow introduction it soars off into an extended development, coursing through a restless harmonic landscape. This builds to a massive climax, from which, as the ensemble draws deep recuperating breaths, a return to the opening section is achieved, this time softer, more searching, and finally accepting.