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ClassicsOnline Home » EBERHARD: Piano Concerto / Prometheus Wept
Dennis Eberhard (b.1943)
Shadow of The Swan (Piano Concerto)
A few years ago I had the extraordinary opportunity to
meet the exceptional Russian pianist Halida Dinova.
She had just finished recording the piano works of
Scriabin and asked me if I would help her decide the
order in which they would appear on her soon to be
released CD. After spending eight intense hours
working together, I came away from that eventful
meeting overwhelmed. Halida's powerful interpretation
of Scriabin's work, the depth of feeling she was able to
evoke and the profound sensitivity she expressed by her
playing had planted a seed in my mind. As I began to
follow her career and hear her perform more often she
increasingly impressed me by her ability to summon the
deepest emotions from the music she performed,
bringing it to life in a way that I had never heard. I was
also strongly drawn to her as a creative artist who
shared my musical values and aesthetic sensibilities. I
began to think about writing a piece for her, one that
would exploit her very special qualities and make a
forceful impact. I decided upon a piano concerto.
I was working on the second movement when I
heard the news that the Russian submarine Kursk had
experienced some kind of accident and that it and its
crew were stranded at the bottom of the Barents Sea.
The early but fading hope of rescue, the heroic
international efforts exerted to save the men and the
ultimate human tragedy brought about by the death of
one hundred eighteen sailors made this incident
intensely poignant. I was at once terribly moved and
inspired. It became obvious to me that the meaning of
this work was fatally bound to this tragedy. I decided
immediately to dedicate the piano concerto to the
memory of those men who perished in August 2000.
It was then that I remembered the powerful poem
Babi Yar by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. For a reason then
unknown to me, I began to pore over his poetry.
Suddenly, I came across a brief poem entitled Requiem
for Challenger. I was stunned. The poem drew up from
deep within my psyche the terrifying image of that
tragic explosion that I witnessed on television that
fateful morning in 1986. I was especially shaken by the
irony of Yevtushenko's imagery that depicted the
massive explosion as "...this great white swan of death
made from the last breath of seven evaporated souls...1"
I could not help but draw a parallel between this terrible
event and the Kursk disaster.
From the very onset of this project, I had been
searching for a nexus, a common thread that I could
weave into a musical fabric that would somehow link
and fuse our two cultures together and would give
meaning to this piece. I had discovered that connection.
Sadly it had come full circle. A work whose conception
had been inspired by a Russian technological disaster as
seen through the eyes of an American composer had
become entwined with the memory of an American
technological disaster as seen through the eyes of a
Russian poet. Both events shook the world.
That haunting image of a great white swan
spreading its bellowing plumes as it incredibly
evaporates, falling to earth, as the Kursk fell to the
bottom of the sea, taking with it the memories of once
living beings is devastating. Its awesome shadow cast
upon the face of the earth makes us shudder. At the
same time, it reminds us that both life and art are a
continuum. We are but parts of that continuum. We live,
we die and yet we remain alive in the memories of those
we have touched.
Today these two incidents are dwarfed by the
horrific events that occurred in New York City,
Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania on 11th
September, 2001. These events touched people from all
nations, and galvanized humanity, drawing it together
through a shared vision of the future and a renewed
sense of compassion for one another. Shadow of the
Swan is a celebration of our indomitable human spirit.
After being commissioned by Performers and
Artists for Nuclear Disarmament to write a short piece
for string orchestra in remembrance of the victims of the
atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I began
to search for a title that would evoke the sense and
feeling I hoped to express. I was strangely drawn to the
mythical Titan, Prometheus. The Greek playwright
Aeschylus in his drama Prometheus Bound tells us that
Zeus, the creator, was dissatisfied with the race of
human beings that he had made, thinking them to be
flawed and inferior. He therefore decided to destroy
them and create a new race of people. Prometheus, the
first of the intelligent Titans, felt that there was potential
in humankind and elected to champion them. In doing
so, he defied Zeus by giving them the secret of fire. I
imagine Prometheus returning to earth at the end of the
twentieth century expecting to marvel at the wonders
wrought by humanity. Instead he finds that they have
taken his gift to its ultimate extreme and unleashed it
against themselves and their world. I imagine
Prometheus horribly shaken, saddened and
disappointed. In his remorse, I see a tear slowly
emerging from his great eye.
I turned my searching eyes
To the sun, as if
An ear above would hear my lament,
A heart like mine, distressed,
Pleading for pity.
From Goethe's Prometheus
(translated by Renata Cinti)
When Prometheus Wept was first performed in 1998,
it was preceded by a dramatic presentation of a Russian
Orthodox styled chant sung in Slavonic by the bass
Michael McMurray. Inspired by his visit to Chernobyl
in 1996, McMurray, an anti-nuclear activist, decided to
put together this short chant based on texts taken from
Revelations that would bring attention to the disaster.
Beginning with the passage that introduces the seven
angels with the seven trumpets and closing with the
appearance of the star called Wormwood, the chant
depicts the end of the world. Most interestingly the
Slavonic text was modified by substituting the
Ukrainian word for Wormwood, "Chernobyl" so as to
link the chant to the apocalyptic melt-down that
occurred in the Ukraine. The effect of the pairing of
these two pieces was so striking that I decided to make
my own version of the chant and combine the two into
one piece. In the new version the text to the chant is
extended to include a warning of doom given to the
inhabitants of the earth by an angel. There is no printed
music for this segment of the piece. Instead the bass
begins on his lowest note and chants in Russian in the
Russian Orthodox Liturgical manner, rising
chromatically, and closes when he reaches his highest
note. Although one segment is based upon a biblical
text and the other taken from mythology, the two
seemingly disparate elements combine to create a
powerful indictment against the senseless abuse of
atomic energy and give a stern warning to those who
would continue to play with fire.
Revelations 8: 6-13
And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets
prepared to sound them.
The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there
came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was
hurled down upon the earth. A third of the earth
was burned up, a third of the trees were burned
up, and all the green grass was burned up.
The second angel sounded his trumpet, and
something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was
thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into
blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea
died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.
The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great
star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a
third of the rivers and springs of water - the name
of the star is Chernobyl - a third of the waters
turned bitter, and many people died from the
waters that had become bitter.
The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third
of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a
third of the stars, so that a third of them turned
dark. A third of the day was without light, and
also a third of the night.
As I watched, I heard an angel that was flying
above call out in a loud voice: "Woe! Woe! Woe
to the inhabitants of the earth..."
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EBERHARD: Piano Concerto / Prometheus Wept