for narrator and orchestra
My Rip Van Winkle is a melodrama (or should I call it a concerto for narrator and orchestra?) that retells the timeless tale of the American spirit's ability to accept sweeping changes. The text I use has been adapted by my life-partner, Ray Warman, from Washington Irving's classic.
The story first appeared in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., a romantic assortment of essays, sketches and short fiction that made Irving famous. Why? Because it contains both "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" — two of the earliest, most celebrated examples now known as the short story.
"Rip" (like "Sleepy Hollow") is full of "gothic," supernatural effects and a great deal of humor. Alas, it is also something of a misogynist's tale, making Rip's overbearing and nagging wife, Dame Van Winkle, the story's major villain(ess).
Rip's opening theme — tonal, graceful, even plaintive — is heard in various transformations throughout the work. It is closely followed by the strident evocation of Dame Van Winkle — an insistent, muted trumpet note (D-sharp), which emerges from the harsh 12-tone background. Even Wolf, Rip's loyal canine companion, has his own boisterous theme!
As the story turns ominous — Rip and Wolf have climbed high into the Catskill Mountains to escape the Dame — wind and thunder machines heighten the mysterious atmosphere. The ghostly crew of Henry Hudson's ship, the Half-Moon, appear to their own peculiar music (matching their own peculiar behavior). At the center of the piece is Rip's 20-year sleep — an orchestral interlude punctuated by Rip's "snoring" and by an invisible chorus ticking off the passing years.
When Rip finally does awaken, the music is a recapitulation of the opening. However, to suggest that his work has vastly changed, I reverse the musical modes. What had been in minor now becomes major, and vice versa. This leads to a Fugue (Rip's theme, highly energized) as out hero, confused and disheveled, climbs down from the mountains and meets curious, even combative, townsfolk.
It gradually becomes clear that Rip has slept through momentous political upheaval — the Revolutionary War has been fought and won, American democracy has been born, and George Washington has replaced King George III. The prominent appearance of the tune "Yankee Doodle" (combined with Rip's theme) epitomizes this American emergence and leads to a dramatic and climactic confrontation between the befuddled, old-world Rip and a newly-energized, patriotic populace.
The final scene, Andante teneramente — is a lushly romantic, highly chromatic transformation of Rip's theme. This underlies the touching moment when Rip recognizes his own daughter in the crowd. Now, however, she is a grown woman with a baby. He learns, too, that his termagant wife has long since died (in a fit of pique at a peddler). Despite her demise, musical evocations of the Dame, like a persistent bad memory, continue on in the musical texture: The emblematic D-sharp of the muted trumpet is surrounded now by the rattling jawbone of an ass (posthumous nagging, perhaps?). The emotional climax of the story comes when Rip is finally recognized by everyone — tells them all his tale — and is welcomed back by the whole community with a cheer: "Rip! Rip! Hooray!"
Amid twittering birdcalls of contentment, the story, fairy-tale-like, comes to its happy denouement — though not without the ever-rattling tattoo of the deceased Dame's dratted D's!