(a symphonic fantasy)
Instrumentation: viola & orchestra
Duration: 70 minutes
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A small, blue edition of Hart Crane’s masterpiece, The Bridge, has been living in my library for decades. The thought of doing something musically with it popped into mind now and then, but I never quite mustered the courage to do anything with it. However, during these days of coronavirus driven isolation, when the importance of human connectness, so aptly symbolized by the image of the bridge, has been hammered into our consciousness, the time had come.
For those so inclined, read the poem. The Bridge, over the course of its 15 chapters, is an attempt to capture the essence of America in the 1920s, as Crane experienced it. I think he succeeded in capturing the complexities of America – from its violent beginnings as the culture of native Americans was crushed by expanding European cultures to the crass commercialism that erupted at the turn of the century (and still exists, in spades, today), tempered by the buoyant optimism and hope for mankind in spirits like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and the American transcendentalists. But above all, the poem relies upon the Brooklyn Bridge as a symbol of connectness, spanning the myriad of events across time and geography that culminate in what we are, wherever we are, today.
Crane’s poem attempted perhaps too much. The span of the Brooklyn Bridge became a symbol of everything connected to everything else – the past to the present, urban America to rural America, a vast dream of America from its pre-European existence to the bustling America of big, industrial cities and great railroads spanning the continent.
In this music, the solo viola, in its middle range, spans between the musical soundscapes that represent the images evoked by the poem. It reaches between the low and high instruments, between the dark, swirling eddies of water beneath the bridge to the searing sunlight, piercing the harp-like cables of the bridge, while seagulls soar overhead. It also is the voice of the poem’s protagonist, seeking redemption in a violent and crassly commercial world.
Scattered, like leaves, in the music, are apparitions from the past – a fragment of a melody from a court composer to Ferdinand and Isabella, a made-up Irish gig, bits of jazz and flashes of tunes from the 1920s that Hart Crane would have heard during his days in New York.
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