Voice & Orchestra
narrator; 2(II=picc)
November 20, 2005
Kennedy Center
National Syphony Orchestra / Leonard Slatkin / Brian Stokes Mitchell, narrator
The National Symphony Orchestra, made possible by a gift from Ann and Tom Friedman

Ray Warman, after Washington Irving

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Boosey & Hawkes

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!

– David Del Tredici, 7 November 2005
Still, there was much to enjoy, particularly Del Tredici's masterly ability to convey virtually anything in music — whether nagging wives, gunshots, twittering birds or distant thunder — with wit and virtuosity. He also managed to saturate the story in a dreamlike atmosphere; orchestral interludes, in particular, took on a childlike sense of wonder.
Rip Van Winkle is a sleeping beauty
Fantasy and fables have always proven goldmines for gay composer David Del Tredici III. In 1980, the then-closeted musician won the Pulitzer Prize in music for "In Memory of a Summer Day," one of his many extraordinary "Alice" pieces inspired by Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

The New York-based maestro's latest work, "Rip Van Winkle: A Melodrama," commissioned for a family concert by the National Symphony Orchestra and music director Leonard Slatkin, may represent the first time he's set a fable especially for children.

"I read a lot of American tales, such as 'Johnny Appleseed,'" he told the Blade.

"'Casey at the Bat' and all those things were too macho. 'Rip Van Winkle,' on the other hand, is a fairy tale and ghost mystery with a lot of unexplained magical things."

"Rip is only the composer's second piece inspired by American folklore — the first, "Paul Revere's Ride," has just been issued on a spectacular Telarc recording with the Atlanta Symphony conducted by Robert Spano — and his first collaboration with his partner, corporate lawyer come librettist Raymond Warman.

It was not easy collaborating with Ray," Del Tredici confessed. "We had lots of fights about how it would go. But I couldn't have done it on my own; I needed another wall to bounce off of."

Del Tredici, 68, recalls that librettist Francesco Maria Piave once told famed composer Giacomo Puccini, "Giacomo, working with you is like being in hell."

"I think Ray said the same at certain points," Del Tredici admits. "The collaboration did bring out our differences. I'm quite passionate and direct, while Ray is much more cerebral and organized in his thoughts. Each of us needs the other's characteristics."

Del Tredici, well known for his neo-Romanticism, may be a bit set in his ways. He's composed symphonic work since the late 1950s, taught at Harvard University, the Juilliard School and City College of New York and won many prestigious grants, fellowships and awards. IN 2001, he premiered his song cycle "Gay Life" about the struggles and joys of the homosexual experience.

Del Tredici was especially interested in "Rip Van Winkle's" misogyny — the character goes up the mountains to get away from his nagging wife — which also provided fertile ground for a varied musical landscape.

Whenever the wife enters the scene, Del Tredici intentionally writes harsh, atonal music (the first he's composed in 30 years) as a metaphoric device.

Creating a serious concerto for narrator and orchestra that would remain coherent in the face of so much talking proved a major challenge for a composer accustomed to writing for sung voice and orchestra.

"It's a very odd experience to write with someone talking over the music," he says.

Richard Strauss devoted an entire opera (1942's "Capriccio") to asking which is more important, the words or the music. For David Del Tredici, the answer quickly became clear.

"Ultimately, I realized that music is a big engine," he says. "Words can be pushed around if the music is very direct and powerful."

After Ray supplied the libretto, David decided to write a half hour of music and simply drop the words — which are spoken rather than sung — on top of it. He said it wasn't as easy as he first imagined it eventually he was able to open up the music and integrate the words in a way that made musical sense to him.

In characteristic Del Tredici fashion, the scores calls for several Acme Bird Calls, a wind machine, and a thunder machine. Eschewing electronic devices or recordings of wind, David decided to opt for oddness.

Once can only smile at the thought of hearing his extended musical interlude for Rip's 20-year sleep during which the narrator (Tony-winning Broadway singer Brian Stokes Mitchell) snores throughout, and the offstage whisper chorus that counts out the 20 years.

"I don't mean to make things camp," he insists. "I like to make them vivid and very exciting."

Audio (1)