Ensemble with Voice
Solo group: soprano (amplified), horn, and tubular bells (2 players)Orchestra: 1(I=picc).picc(=afl).2(II=corA).2(II=bcl).2(II=dbn)-
July 6, 1968
Philharmonic Hall, New York City
Phyllis Bryn-Julson / Festival '68 Chamber Ensemble / Richard Dufallo
Dedicated to the Memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitsky
Dedicated to Sir Georg Solti

from Collected Poems and Pomes Penyeach by James Joyce

  • I.Ecce Puer
  • II.Nightpiece
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Boosey & Hawkes

Syzygy, Two Songs for Two Groups, was commissioned by the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress and dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky. The setting of two poems by James Joyce was written in 1966 at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The composer has supplied the following information:
The first is a short, rather cryptic, setting of a not dissimilar poem, Ecce Puer. The music has the perhaps-or-perhaps-not interesting feature of going exactly backwards from its midpoint (but in a reorchestrated form).

The second, a much longer, very elaborate setting of Night piece, is an attempt musically to suggest great distances and the space between: A sort of music of the spheres, an outer space where pale stars wave in gloom, ghost-fires faint illume, Seraphim awaken and a tolling starknell soars.

And what does the word "syzygy" mean? Through astronomy, zoology and mathematics, the word is used, and the common point of definition can perhaps be summed up as the strong union or opposition of elements that had hitherto been in no such juxtaposition. In my musical extension of the definition, I had in mind the varying contrasts made between the solo group (soprano, French horn and chimes) and the chamber orchestra.

A fanciful footnote to the word: It always looked to me like some other, uncreated word run backwards, mirror fashion—a device not infrequently used throughout the piece.

– David Del Tredici
It was Del Tredici's Syzygy (1966) that I found revelatory.

Scored for the curious combination of soprano, French horn and tubular bell soloists with a chamber orchestra whose only brass contingent is two trumpets, Syzygy is an elaborate (26-minute) setting of two Joyce poems, the touchingly terse Ecce Puer and verbally lush Nightpiece.

The sonorous extremism of the work can be gauged from the opening bars of the two movements. The first sounds we hear are of piccolo and contrabassoon in counterpoint, while Nightpiece, the longer movement, quietly presents us with a high violin harmonic, a tolling bell and leaping contrabassoon quavers. The vocal part makes staggering demands. It was written for the astonishing Phyllis Bryn-Julson, but Susan Narucki was more than equal to it at Maida Vale. The horn part, constantly shadowing the voice (and joining it in a jittery cadenza near then end), is so taxing that two players can be used, and even the bell part calls for a pair of executants.

Virtuosity, though, is built into the concept of the piece, and the composer's own allows him to construct a polyphonic and metrical structure of almost medieval ingenuity. He magically transforms the vocal line into a vertical proliferation of parts. He rejoices in the tricks of canon, inversion and mirror-writing beloved of 12-tone composers as well as 14th-century ones. He moves between Elliott Carter and the Gothic motet, but his music's ability to look backwards and forwards at the same time is a sure sign of its originality. Al! the while the text is being drawn into a new expressive world.

In the middle of a bar in each movement Del Tredici inscribes his title like a cipher at the top of the score. 'Syzygy" is a real word, used for example in astronomy to refer to the conjunction or opposition of objects previously unjuxtaposed, like the moon and sun. For Del Tredici the word applies to the varying contrasts made between solo group and ensemble, but he also sees it as 'some other uncreated word run backwards, mirror-fashion"; and at the two marked points the music accordingly goes into reverse, the first movement proving a full-scale Bergian palindrome. In the hidden power of such moments there is a pyschic charge, a deep spiritual meaning. Compositional virtuosity transcends itself.

I had somehow missed out on this work, though aware of its existence. With its relentless energy, its precision, its intellectual and poetic intensity, it now seems to me the perfect demonstration of l960s modernism as a living language.
Syzygy and revelation stunned last night's audience at the Library of Congress. Del Tredici's "Syzygy" gave the members and guests of the International Music Council their first electric charge.

Tredici is a 31-year-old U.S. composer who chose two James Joyce poems, "Ecce Puer," and 'Nightpiece," his flaming exploration of syzygy. For his definition of the term, which is used in astronomy, zoology, and mathematics, the composer says, "the strong union or opposition of elements which had hitherto been in no such juxtaposition."

Definitions aside, Del Tredici has created, for soprano and a chamber ensemble of 20 players, a fabulous score that, in more ways than one, recalls Mozart's Astrafiammente, the flaming star who is the Queen of the Night. His vocal line is daughter to Berg's Lulu, but far outruns her in explosive shooting stars the singer must fling out. In range, in intervals, in stupefying virtuosity the vocal writing, which might wrongly be called instrumental, is a gauntlet few singers could run in safety, to say nothing of winning the prize for stupendous accomplishment.

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