Linton: The Silver Swan

Linton: The Silver Swan


Composers are often asked about a piece of music, “How long did it take you to write that”? It’s not a ill-intended question yet lurking behind it, unvoiced but hinted, is the notion that a really good composer, truly taken by the muses, writes quickly, as Handel wrote when he dashed off Messiah. Feverishly composed, the piece is great and you’re a brilliant composer. If not so swiftly made, then, well — the music is not quite such a marvel.

“The Silver Swan” was written in a matter of days, and forty-three years. I first came across Gibbon’s text, set by Ned Rorem, in January, 1971, when I turned pages for a college recital of Sherri Woods accompanied by my freshman roommate, Jerry Blackstone (Sherri would go on to be a major soprano in The New York City Opera and Jerry became the leading choral conductor of his generation, eventually heading of the conducting program at the University of Michigan). I immediately loved the text and resolved to write my own setting.

On and off I’d return to Gibbon’s poem, writing a few bars of music, but nothing more came of it. Ten days before our March 2013 recording session for “Dakota Wind”, Pam Sixfin, our orchestra contractor, looked at the session schedule and asked if we had another piece to record for the same ensemble. “Dakota Wind”, she reasoned, wouldn’t demand all the orchestral time we’d contracted. Did we have something else?

I thought of orchestrating “Western Gate” (a piece for soprano and piano I had written to another of Jody Bottum’s poems), and I began to sketch out the orchestration. But I was also speaking daily with Cody Franchetti and those conversations about our culture’s almost suicidal amnesia of its rich past returned me to the Gibbons. The opening soprano line was written literally in a minute. Continuing that line proved to be more problematic and several nearly complete settings were thrown out. But Cody and I also had been talking a lot about the music of the late Baroque and the Sturm und Drang and those conversations manifested, along with memories of watching wedges of swans fly along the Housatonic River in Connecticut, in the modulating sequence “. . . more geese than swans. . . ” that became the song’s fulcrum.

A telephone call to my colleague Michael Arndt to see if the extraordinarily treacherous trumpet line I was writing for him was performable (it was), and the piece was quickly finished. The music was given to my daughter Elizabeth, and two days later the piece was rehearsed for twenty minutes and recorded.

There are authors who plot out their novels, even to the smallest details (J.K. Rowling apparently is an example) while there are others who invent characters, put them in a locale and turn them lose, their characters behaving as they must. There are similar kinds of composers. “The Silver Swan” is not the piece I thought I was going to write: quiet, nostalgic, and with a whiff of innocuous melancholy — like all of the other settings of the poem (although not Gibbon’s own). Those were the versions that I sketched-out and one by one tore up, finding them spastic, inarticulate, false. It was only when I allowed the music both to unabashedly fly and curse that it had the freedom to express nearly the half-century of thought I had given Gibbon’s text, thought that was not nostalgic but passionate, bitter and true — and most certainly not innocuous.

Soon after the recording, I wrote Cody about how my setting changed from my first intentions and how its truth forced itself upon me: ” As you’ve reminded me, we know the world best not through numbers (positivism, etc), but through art, as suggested by Croce and Schopenhauer. And if we’re true artists our own art compels us to inflict even that brutal honesty upon ourselves, if we have the courage to make it so (but it’s really not courage since to have courage suggests that there is a choice between several possible courses of action, between courage and cowardice, but an artist doesn’t have that choice; the true artist doesn’t have the choice of cowardice). The truth wins out, it can’t be stopped.” To which he wrote back: “Well, Michael, that’s unconditionally true, and that’s why in reality it is life that imitates are and not the contrary, which is the pleonasm we always hear.” The song is dedicated “to Cody, who understands.” — Michael Linton

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