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ClassicsOnline Home » MORAVEC, P.: Useful Knowledge: A Franklin Fantasy / Vita Brevis / Characteristics (Burton, Mulligan, Scarlata, Trio Solisti)
This program of musical portraits by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Moravec encompasses a song cycle, a cantata and a solo piano work. Vita Brevis is a beautiful cycle of five songs that chart a birth-to-death journey, whereas Characteristics enshrines tributes from the composer to seven musical friends, three pianists, two composers, a violinist and a countertenor, in the form of pithy piano commentaries. Moravec’s tribute to Benjamin Franklin, Useful Knowledge, is a soliloquy cum fantasy that celebrates Franklin’s pioneering rationality with music of dextrous imagination.
By Marcus Karl Maroney
Paul Moravec (b. 1957)
The works in this collection may all be described as musical portraits. The first, Vita Brevis, is of an imaginary, composite life drawn from a variety of literary sources. Characteristics is intended to capture and project particular personal aspects of several of my musicianfriends. Useful Knowledge, based on the writings of Benjamin Franklin, concerns the spiritual life of that most rational, skeptical avatar of the American Enlightenment.
Vita Brevis, a cycle of five songs, follows a life’s passage from infancy through youth, middle age, and old age to death. Beginning with James Agee’s hauntingly dark A Lullaby and ending with Mary Frye’s transcendent In Remembrance, the cycle’s life trajectory moves, perhaps counter-intuitively, from darkness to light, from despair to hope. Youth is represented here by Wordsworth’s My Heart Leaps Up. The poem’s wonderfully paradoxical “The child is father of the man” leads naturally into the song about middle age, a “mashup” of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno with an excerpt from Longfellow’s meditation on those very lines, Mezzo Cammin. Yeats’s The Coming of Wisdom with Time concerns the perspective afforded by the passage of time, one of the few positive aspects of the process of aging.
The texts in this cycle appeal to me, in part, for their simple clarity and directness of expression, and none more so than In Remembrance. This classic poem of healing and grace has become hugely popular in recent years, even morphing into innumerable, slightly varying versions. The brevis in the title Vita Brevis refers to the relatively short duration of the song cycle itself, and to the feeling that life, no matter how long in years, is always too brief. The cycle’s theme can be summarized by Thomas Carlyle’s phrase: One life: a gleam of time between two eternities.
The original version of Vita Brevis, for tenor and piano, was commissioned by Paul Sperry, who gave the première and recorded it with me in 2002. I made this piano trio version for the performers on the recording, Amy Burton and the members of Trio Solisti.
One of the joys of a composer’s life is in the fellowship of musical friends made along the way. Characteristics is a collection of tributes to seven such friends: three pianists, two composers, a violinist, and a countertenor. As it is, of course, impossible to do justice to an individual’s complex persona in a short piano piece, I have focused on a particular characteristic for each. The seven musicians are, in order of appearance in the collection, Daron Hagen, Russell Oberlin, Jon Klibonoff, Maria Bachmann, Anthony DeMare, Sara Davis Buechner, and Fred Lerdahl. Simon Mulligan, the pianist for this recording, gave the work its New York première in the fall of 2004.
Useful Knowledge: a Franklin Fantasy is a composer’s personal view of Benjamin Franklin. The text is excerpted and assembled from his various private and public writings and almanacs to create an extended musical soliloquy. The excerpts are necessarily removed from their original context. As the subtitle A Franklin Fantasy suggests, this composition is subjective and fanciful, but it projects, I hope, something of the essence of this very great man’s spirit.
I imagine that Whitman’s phrase “I contain multitudes” might well apply to Franklin. Of the many aspects of his immeasurably various and comprehensive intellect, the one I focus on is the spiritual dimension. A Deist, not religious in a conventional sense, Franklin nevertheless expressed a genuine spirituality which seems to have supported and helped energize his prodigious practical activity and accomplishment. His maxim, “To pour forth benefits for the common good is Divine,” aptly summarizes this sentiment. In his characteristically “multitudinous” way, Franklin strikes me as a pragmatic idealist, a practical dreamer, for whom contemplation and action were indispensable and complementary aspects of a life well-lived.
This cantata also intends to capture the cool fire of Franklin’s passionately rational temperament. Among so many other ways, he served what he called “the Divine” by dispelling superstition, which he regarded as a dangerous and unnecessary blight on human thought and society. At the heart of my cantata’s text is Franklin’s description in the 1753 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack of how to fashion and mount a lightning rod, arguably the most significant invention of the eighteenth century. His famous kite-and-key experiment demonstrated that lightning is a form of electricity, a profoundly important development not only in “natural philosophy,” as science was then known, but also in its theological and societal implications. In Franklin’s age, lightning, with the damage and death it could cause, was still widely viewed as a manifestation of God’s wrath and judgment. That “the Thunder of Heaven is no more supernatural than the Rain, Hail or Sunshine of Heaven” was, to many of his contemporaries, a shockingly subversive idea. To others, this insight, along with the incalculably useful benefits of the lightning rod, helped make him one of the most esteemed figures in the Western World. As one contemporary admirer put it, “he snatched the lightning from heaven and the sceptre from tyrants.”
While his greatest invention was the lightning rod, his own favorite invention may well have been the glass harmonica, which makes an appearance in this cantata. He is reported to have been proficient on the instrument, delighting his friends with its uncanny timbre. The glass harmonica attracted the interest of several prominent musicians of the time, including Mozart, who composed for the instrument. In a curious historical irony, Franz Mesmer, founder of Mesmerism, a cult-like practice that Franklin would eventually condemn publicly as something of a fraud, used the “ethereal” sound of Franklin’s invention to enhance the mood of his notorious séances.
Useful Knowledge takes its title from Franklin’s founding document for the American Philosophical Society: “A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge Among the British Plantations in America.” It was commissioned by the APS for Franklin’s tercentenary year and given its première at its April, 2006 meeting in Philadelphia by the performers on this recording, Randall Scarlata and members of La Fenice chamber ensemble.
Finally, for an album of musical portraits, it is fitting that I should add a personal biographical note about the Franklin cantata. In the last days of his life, my father asked of me a very specific favor: to compose a piece that would, as he put it, “remind people of the Enlightenment, of the principles of our nation’s Founders.” Useful Knowledge is dedicated to the memory of my father, Vince Moravec.
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MORAVEC, P.: Useful Knowledge: A Franklin Fantasy ...