Tales of Hemmingway

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            Suffice to say that Michael Daugherty and his musical style springs directly from the heart of contemporary American culture.  He now occupies an esteemed position as Professor of Composition in the music school of the University of Michigan, and has written compositions for just about anybody and everybody in the “official” world of classical music culture—major orchestras, music schools and conservatories, distinguished performers, enterprising conductors—you name it, he is clearly the current darling of progressive concert music.  He has a “Zelig”-like persona whose musical roots and subsequent musical education seems to have touched most every base.  But his background could not be more prosaic—in the best sense of the word.  He grew up, like the average American kid, surrounded by the pervasive influence of television, rock and roll, rampant commercialization, cathartic political events, in short, just about everything condemned by European intellectuals as typical of the “depravity” of American society.  Growing up in a musical family of middle class tastes, he played in rock bands, accompanied country-western performers on the Hammond organ at county fairs, carried the bass drum in marching bands, studied at North Texas State, and played jazz piano, as well as cocktail piano, at a lounge on the Jersey Turnpike.

            After moving to New York, where he hobnobbed with such avant garde intellectuals such as Milton Babbit and Pierre Boulez, he moved to Paris where he studied electronic music, later studying in Germany with Ligeti and Stockhausen and, well, you get the idea.  Along the way he received a doctoral degree from Yale, writing on Ives and Mahler.

            Tales of Hemmingway for cello and orchestra was commissioned by the Nashville Symphony and a consortium of several other regional orchestras.   The première was given in April of 2015 by that ensemble, with Zuill Bailey as soloist.  As we observed, Daugherty is a composer who takes particular inspiration from the most disparate elements of the extra-musical world of his milieu.  The history of music generally has been populated with composers who were more than comfortable writing music that was abstract and referred only to itself.  But, starting roughly two centuries ago, and coinciding roughly with the Romantic Movement art in and literature, many composers—but certainly not all--sought stimulus from the world around, and Daugherty is without question “Exhibit A” in that regard.  So, his cello concerto stems from his perception of Ernest Hemmingway’s life and literary style, and more specifically, four of the author’s published works.  It must be said that, notwithstanding the potent inspiration of the details of these four stories on the composer, the astute listener really doesn’t need them.  In reality, they are for the composer, not for the listener.  The four movements stand more than adequately on their own musical foundations as adroitly crafted musical abstractions.  So, you really don’t need a program to “tell the players.”

            The first movement, inspired by the early Nick Adams stories of fishing in the secluded woods of upper Michigan, is a lush evocation of tranquility and repose.  While the orchestra has its powerful moments in the limelight in this pursuit, there are eloquent moments where the solo cello—almost in recitative—sings in a human’s impassioned voice.  In the second movement, the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War is the background of the drama.   Therein, the protagonist of the story, Robert Jordan, accepts a suicide mission, and Daugherty accordingly composes a grotesque, variegated march that leads to death.  The music plods, stumps, dashes and lurches—driven by a welter of tour de force writing for the cello.  The deadly march is interrupted intermittently by existential musing of the cello.  This nightmare of a march staggers to inevitable, cataclysmic demise, presaged by chimes, leading to the obvious:  “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

            In the composer’s words, the third movement is “. . . an elegy to the struggle of life and death between man and nature.”  The travails of old fisherman, Santiago, in The Old Man and the Sea become a musical meditation on the search for “the truths of man’s existence with dignity and grace.”  Along the way, Daugherty can’t resist a few touches of Hispanic harmonies before the delicate and color-infused orchestration brings the meditation to a gentle, reflective close.

            Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises is the genesis of the last movement, wherein Daugherty takes full advantage of the panoply of the running of the bulls and the violence of the bullring to generate his musical drama.  The movement opens with an adroit imitation of Flamenco guitar by the solo cellist, which soon moves into a vivacious Spanish-tinged dance.  Rhythmic filigrees and pensive moments in the solo part from time to time yield to melodic episodes in the orchestra, in a brilliantly orchestrated weft of give and take.  After a dramatic pause, glissandi by the cellist leads to a charge to the end, but in a bit of a surprise, the superficial blandishments of the bloody entertainment are abandoned for a brief moment of existential introspection by the soloist.  That short contemplation, explains the composer, is a “musical illumination of the novel’s enigmatic epigraph.”  From Ecclesiastes 1:5—“The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasten to his place where he arose.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2019 William E. Runyan