Harbison and his Mottetti

By Joseph Sowa

Joseph Sowa: Your association with Collage New Music and David Hoose goes back decades. Among other collaborations, Collage premiered the complete orchestrated version of Mottetti di Montale in 2006, the recording of which garnered a Grammy nomination. How did that opportunity come about? What excites you about repeating the collaboration on that work a decade later?

John Harbison: My connection with Collage goes back to the second year of the group’s existence, my first professional performances in Boston. I was, for awhile, Music Director of Collage. Among many memorable and challenging pieces were premieres by Lerdahl, Rzewski, Sur, Wyner, and Helps. David Hoose was beginning his long and distinguished run, fortunately still in progress, when I conducted a 1987 CD of my Mirabai Songs with Janice Felty and the group, my last work with them as a performer.

Since then I have had the benefit of many collaborations with David and this remarkably resourceful bunch of players. The 2006 performances of this 50-minute song cycle was then, and still is, to date, the only complete performance of the chamber ensemble version. There have been many performances of the final two books, which I first assembled as Due Libri, and Books I and II have had separate performances. But the piece is based on a series of poems described by the poet as “a novel in verse,” and its very unusual narrative emerges only in traversing all twenty poems.

Performances of the original version for voice and piano, daunting for both performers, have also been a bit scarce: Janice Felty and Edward Auer in Santa Fe and New York for the premiere in 1981; Felty and Judith Gordon in Madison before their 2008 CD; and four singers with Lydia Brown, pianist, at Songfest LA in 2017.

"The 2006 performances of this 50-minute song cycle was then, and still is, to date, the only complete performance of the chamber ensemble version." 

A piece written nearly forty years ago changes as listening habits, pace of life, and generational temperaments change. It is a fascinating to measure it again, in the expert company of a conductor and a number of players who performed it over a decade ago. It is also a matter of keen curiosity to find how it strikes new listeners. There is also, exceptionally, in this case a recording available to anyone who needs to hear it again [available on Amazon and at the concert].

JS: Mottetti di Montale sets poems from Eugenio Montale’s Le Occasioni. In the piece’s program note you say you are “deeply interested in Montale's poetry.” What interests you so much about his poetry? And what about it did you find musically inspiring?

JH: I first came across Montale in a book of “translations,” Imitations by Robert Lowell, which I bought in 1958 while I was in college. I later discovered that Lowell’s versions of Montale poems were very loose paraphrases, but some flavor emerged which I never wished to relinquish. In a New Directions volume of selections from Montale’s poetry I found some of the Mottetti, translated by various authors, and was immediately gripped by the cycle, a broken love story told in images; flashes; and shared, barely discernible memories. I looked quite a while for the poems in the set not included in the ND collection, and found the missing ones (these only) in Edith Farnsworth’s Provisional Conclusions. When I could piece together the whole sequence I could barely believe that I was thinking about setting them all. I told myself I was trying just a couple of them, but during the summer of 1979 I composed all twenty.

I sometimes think my incomplete command of Italian opened my imagination to the very unusual situations, scenes, barely suggested intensities and anxieties I heard in the poems. In any case each motet seemed its own world. I worried about how fast I was working, but felt that the Wisconsin farm I inhabited was for those months somewhere in Italy.

JS: You have said, “My vocal music is shaped by my work as a performer of Bach cantatas. The Bach aria, with its combination of philosophical, dramatic, and sensuous texts, is more my ideal than that of the Schumann or Strauss Lied.” In what ways do you see Bach’s influence in these Mottetti?

During my work on Mottetti di Montale I felt a distinct distance from my usual Bach-consciousness. The Montale poems did not share Bach cantata issues, their landscape, so determinant of the chords and shapes of the music, was so involved with sea and shore vegetation, their moral universe so free of judgement and guilt (though full of loss and blocked passion) that Bach is far.

In my vocal pieces where I set up the sequence — Simple Daylight for voice and piano, or The Seven Ages for chamber ensemble and mezzo soprano — I have constructed Bach cantata-like text sequences the better to include his beneficent presence.

JS: As you orchestrated and worked with the songs over the decades following the original version, did you make any discoveries about the music you wrote? How much of the original remained the same and how much did you revise/recast?

Quite a few years after completing Mottetti di Montale, I decided to make a version for chamber ensemble. Voice and piano recitals are more rare at least in schools than chamber ensemble concerts. I had also been given a chance to experience first hand the locales of Montale’s poems, the segment of the Ligurian coast that inhabits Montale’s cycle. Walking above the small towns on the coast below Genoa, the frogs croaked, the lizards slithered by, the boats blew their horns, and I was happy to hear the piece up close again.

But initially I thought I was not the right person to do it. I would hire someone with a more elegant instrumental hand. I found exactly the right person and asked for two movements, just to confirm we were on the right track. They were marvelously done, but way too poised and polished. I realized I wanted something quite plain, very much the original notes with quite literal textual references.