The Hawthorn Tree - Notes by William Bolcom

Composer William Bolcom Writes…

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The Hawthorn Tree Front CoverJoyce Castle is one of our time’s most incandescent acting singers; she can make you laugh out loud or scare you to death by turns as she wishes.  When Joyce asked for a cycle for herself and the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, I was delighted with the prospect of course but realized that it would be a challenge to find texts to encompass her enormous expressive range.

It is just as difficult to choose the right poem as it is to compose music for it in my experience, and we had a long period of selecting and rejecting many candidates for The Hawthorn Tree, Joyce herself selecting the Elinor Wylie and the Willa Cather, before we settled on the present seven.  Also challenging was the arrangement of the poems once selected in an order that had to be exactly right.  In this group the severity of the Wylie poem is offset by the distraught desperation of the Stevie Smith which directly follows.  The 19th century has a rich tradition of wistful laments addressing long-gone lovers – one need look no further than Stephen Foster’s Gentle Annie or I Dream of Jeannie for examples – and Christina Rossetti’s Echo suggested an antique flavor to the music, an oasis of calm in between the group’s two most violent songs.

Louise Bogan’s tough-minded, passionate poetry elicited from me a wildly atonal and unpitched handling of The Dream’s text, matched by an equally ferocious piano part.  Willa Cather’s contrasting simple lyric becomes an effective foil to the Bogan in a folksong manner, which like all of the poems here shares a mysteriously dark undertow.  (I had not previously known of Cather’s poetry, having only read several of her wonderful novels before Joyce found The Hawthorn Tree – which would of course become the title of the cycle.)

The last two poems are by friends.  Sarah Arvio and I met at the American Academy in Rome in 2003; what I prize in her work is her seemingly offhand but really brutally precise depiction of complex soul-states as one finds in Chagrin. I was surprised to find how something in some of her poems recalls my much-beloved Jacques Prévert-Joseph Kosma chansons (the most famous of which is Feuilles d’automne, or Autumn Leaves in English), the atmosphere of which influenced my setting greatly.  Anne Carson’s magical translations of Sappho and of much other classical poetry have the sort of rigor that belies their deceptively informal tone, and her own Swimming Aria has much the same disarming atmosphere – it takes a moment after the first reading to realize its intrinsic complexity.  Swimming Aria’s surface simplicity only serves to deepen its density of thought, and my setting is meant to evoke a long, endless, spiritually elevated swim.