Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Composer John Harbison On His New York Philharmonic Czeslaw Milosz Soprano And Orchestra New Song Cycle

John Harbison wrote the following commentary, which appears in the score of his "Miłosz Songs" soprano and orchestra new song cycle, which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and which receives its world premiere performances, February 23 to 28, 2006. The piece is estimated to last for 30 minutes. [The correct spelling of the poet's name, Czesław Miłosz in the Polish alphabet, incorporates Slavic vocal sounds where the "l" sounds close to "w"]:

"Miłosz Songs" were commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for performance by Dawn Upshaw — my first piece for the orchestra, my fourth for her. Writing for Dawn Upshaw has always encouraged me to try new things. This piece surrounds the singer with a concertino group of six players: three flutes, vibraphone, harp, and celesta. This concertino plays an important, varied role in every song. I thought of these players as satellites revolving around the path of the singer.

Miłosz's poems are Epilogues for the 20th century. He was witness to its most harrowing events. He draws us, unready, as he was, into the great sweep of that history. Always, he reacts, as in "Encounter," not "out of sorrow, but in wonder."

As a reader I return again and again to such fierce, cunning, sweeping mid-length poems as "Preparation," "Ars Poetica?," "No More," and "Counsels."

As a composer I am drawn to fragmentary short lyrics, grateful for their elusive melody, their barely reconciled dissonant elements, their embrace of the every day.

In 1994 I made my first Miłosz setting, "December 1" (part of Flashes and Illuminations for baritone and piano). That poem concludes:

"I describe this for I have learned to doubt philosophy:
and the visible world is all that remains."

Czesław Miłosz was born in Szetejnie, Lithuania, in 1911. He was part of the Polish Resistance movement during World War II, and was the cultural attaché with the Polish Embassy in Paris. He defected to France in 1951. From 1960 to 1999 he taught at the University of California—Berkeley.

Miłosz received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980. He died in Krakow [Poland] in January 2004 [sic - actually, the correct date is August 14, 2004]."

The complete program notes to the world premiere [whose author is not there credited], including the texts to eight short Miłosz poems, and three poetic extracts used as the cycle's Prologue, Epilogue, and Post-Epilogue, are now available on the New York Philharmonic's Web-site, at:


A video interview of the conductor of this New York Philharmonic world premiere, Robert Spano, is also available on that Web-site at:


Part of the medieval fortifications (Barbican) of Krakow, Poland; the city where the Polish-American poet and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz died in August [not January] 2004. The central core of Krakow, Poland [as is Lviv, Ukraine] is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (See http://whc.unesco.org/)

Photo credit: www.point.travel.pl With thanks.


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