Voice & Orchestra
3(II,III=picc).3(III=corA).4(III=Ebcl,IV=bcl).3(III=dbn)- xyl/vib/tamb/glass wind chimes/ratchet/high and low wdbl/claves/large whip/vib/TD/wimbales (high,low)/tom-t(high,low)/tgl/SD/large wind machine/bell tree/susp.cym (high,low)/bongos(high,low)/,large)/large tam-t/guiro/cowbells(high,low)/tamb/anvil-harp-cel-strings
May 28, 1998
Avery Fisher Hall, New York City
Hila Plitmann, soprano / Nathan Gunn, baritone / New York Philharmonic / Kurt Masur
commissioned for the 150th Anniversary of the New York Philharmonic
to Susan Carroll Powers

Mary Howitt

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Boosey & Hawkes

The Spider and the Fly is a grand fantasy of seduction, destruction, and resurrection. It is a setting of Mary Howitt's cautionary poem, well known to children since Victorian times. Like Goethe's famous poem, Erlkonig, it is a story of innocence corrupted. Unlike Goethe, however, Howitt appends a verse admonishing her young readers to moral vigilance.

In my dramatization of the tale, the high soprano is the Fly, the baritone the Spider, and, singing together in unison, they both become the narrator. The text is, opera-like, divided into a series of ducts, arias, and recitatives. In addition, there are three purely orchestral sections—an Introduction, an interlude, and a Fugue.

Of course, the story's thrill is in its seductive pull, its juxtaposition of guile and guilelessness. Duet I, the longest of the movements, uses the first three verses and counterpoints the suave, flowing Spider music against the confused, frightened coloratura of the resistant Fly. In the concluding Quodlibet they sing together their two musics. An Interlude follows. Duet II, Allegro con fuoco, finds an angrier, more frustrated Spider flattering an exhausted and placating Fly. Is she, perhaps, in Arietta I's calm pulsations, planning a gracious escape?

A Recitative changes the scene. Inside his den, the Spider prepares to use his ultimate snare, the web. Weaving this web is depicted in an intensely chromatic, skittering orchestral Fuga.

Feeling powerful and confident now, the Spider emerges to sing a short, beguiling, "Come, hither" Arietta (II) as the Fuga music takes a more delicato dance-like turn. This leads into Duet III where, in a flash, all the action happens: the Fly is caught, dragged "into his dismal den," and —no surprise— "ne'er came out again."

As I said in the beginning, this is a tale of seduction, destruction, and resurrection. Duet IV brings this last enviable state to the fore. In my setting of the final verse—the moral of the story—I chose to ignore the text's stern tone, focusing instead on my loving feelings surrounding three of the words ("dear little children"). Thus I wrote music to soothe a frightened child, frightened perhaps by the story itself. This music is meant to restore trust, to reaffirm love, to open the heart, to resurrect connection. Here for the first time, the Spider and the Fly themes are woven together, amabile; surrounded by many bell sounds, an ecstatic, rather than a threatening, web of sound is created. In Conclusion, the final section extends and enlarges this glowing rapport, though toward the end, in the bass, the Spider ostinato reappears—sly, malevolent, and unsettling still.

I have carried The Spider and the Fly longer than any other piece of mine. It was begun in 1982 at the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio, Italy; continued gratefully through three other artist retreats (the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts); and finished finally in New York City on April 10, 1998.

Needless to say, I wrote other music during this lengthy period — March to Tonality, Tattoo, Haddocks' Eyes, Steps, my yet-to-be-performed opera, Dum Dee Tweedle — but always I was drawn back to my Spider sketches, to this haunting tale—longing to give it musical line and shape. The piece is dedicated to Susan Carroll Powers, in gratitude.

– David Del Tredici
For the first time in nearly two years, if I remember correctly, I went to hear the NY Philharmonic. What brought me there was the world premiere of David Del Tredici's piece "The Spider and the Fly," and I can't say that the concert was a happy occasion, even though the work is probably a masterpiece.

I've loved Del Tredici's music ever since he started writing his Alice in Wonderland pieces. To call them splashy and exuberant is an understatement. They're gigantically excessive, almost decadent, and at the same time remarkably innocent. They're tonal, as I'm sure many people know, and vastly romantic, occupying some post-Mahler, post-Strauss niche that David just about invented for himself.

This new piece, I thought, was far more innocent and at the same time far more decadent than any of the others. (Of course, I haven't heard them for a while, so my memory might be faulty.) It's a huge, long setting of a familiar piece of British verse, a cautionary tale about a seductive spider who invites an innocent fly into his parlor, with predictable results. (Well, we know spiders are female, but...)

In Del Tredici's hands, this becomes an orchestral epic for two singers, a baritone (the spider) and a soprano (the fly), and a huge ensemble. The scoring is dense and complex, and wildly inventive. Some familiar romantic gestures are pushed out to the edge by the addition, let's say, of a xylophone, and some tiny fragment of a climactic phrase might be taken from its context, and tossed about among the instruments. Del Tredici as an orchestral composer of gigantic virtuosity.

But what the work is about more than anything else, I'd say, is sexuality. Somehow the entire sexual tension of western civilization seems to be lurking here, side by side with the near-total innocence of the original poem. This was plain to me from hearing the piece, and my impression was only reinforced when David's publicist (my companion at the concert) told me that David had done an advance interview for Time Out magazine (which is everywhere in NYC, but somehow not read by many people), in which he spoke freely about his history of sexual addiction. In any case, the sexual tension, treated both with profound honesty and profound irony -- this is a VERY complicated piece, emotionally --just permeates the music. About 10% of the score, at a very rough guess, is innocent melody. Much of the rest is sexual, consisting of long, long, LONG buildups to climaxes that may never come, and then the climaxes themselves, which may be quite separate from the buildups, and, though they're made of the same materials, more or less, as a Richard Strauss climax, are also totally different, because they're vastly prolonged. There are long subsiding passages, too, and the result is a work that exists for much of its length in a high (and never quite satisfied) state of erotic excitement.

And who was conducting it? Kurt Masur, who doesn't appear to have an erotic bone in his body, and who couldn't have been more unsuitable if he'd been Billy Graham.

From a composer I know who's worked with Del Tredici, I heard, just before the concert, that relations between Del Tredici and Masur haven't been exactly cordial. Masur didn't appear to like or understand the piece, and the two had arguments about how it should go. I should give Masur some credit for getting it together on three rehearsals -- it's vastly complicated, a real workout for the orchestra, and he appeared to be, if nothing else, an efficient traffic cop, no small achievement in such a difficult piece. But he didn't come near the emotional world of the thing, to such an extent that, even while he kept it together in a very professional way, he more or less murdered it as a work of art. It's not just that he lacked eroticism; he lacked any sense of the uneasy emotional depths of the piece. At a reception afterward, I was talking to a composer I know. We were shaking our heads about this, and he said, with a rueful smile, "There's isn't any decadence OR innocence here" (meaning the NY Philharmonic). To which I added, "Yes, nothing but a kind of hard-headed worldliness." As I told my publicist friend right after the music had stopped: "I love this piece. I hope I hear it performed some day."

;...he has designed a complex musical structure around this vision... [It's] a clever work, with the sinuous Spider vocal line reflecting evil intentions and the distraught Fly a mass of jitters and indecision. There's plenty of tension, a great deal of orchestral storming about and a final, almost lyrical denouement.

Del Tredici treats this as a mini-opera, exaggerating the scale, so it becomes a scene like one witnessed by [Lewis Carroll's] Alice in one of her many changes of size. As a result, the poem's solemn piety is dissolved into a kind of wistful amusement at something from another universe

The Spider and the Fly also represents something of a watershed for the composer as he plans it to be his last Alice-like piece, ending an obsession with Carroll and other child's-view subject matter which has inspired him for over 20 years. Major works of this period include An Alice Symphony with its radical re-examination of tonality, the chart-topping Final Alice and the Pulitzer Prize-winning In Memory of a Summer Day. Recent scores such as Tattoo and Steps have tempered the richness of these pieces with more strident material, and Del Tredici is now moving on to explore new literary and musical territory.

To Del Tredici, Howitt's poem suggested a series of arias and duets—the perfect framework for this "grand fantasy of seduction, destruction, and resurrection." Shirley Fleming, in the New York Post, remarked that Del Tredici "has designed a complex musical structure around this vision....[lt's] a clever work, with the sinuous Spider vocal line reflecting evil intentions and the distraught Fly a mass of jitters and indecision. There's plenty of tension, a great deal of orchestral storming about and a final, almost lyrical denouement." Edward Rothstein (The New York Times) observed, "Mr. Del Tredici treats this as a mini-opera, exaggerating the scale, so it becomes a scene like one witnessed by [Lewis Carroll's] Alice in one of her many changes of size. As a result, the poem's solemn piety is dissolved into a kind of wistful amusement at something from another universe.

But Mr. Del Tredici weaves a very different web. His Philharmonic premiere, for soprano and baritone soloists and orchestra, was called "The Spider and the Fly," and one area of modern life it touched on was sex. Its text comes from a Victorian children's poem, whose apparent innocence fits easily with a nostalgic musical style that Mr. Del Tredici invented, one he'd used in works based on another children's classic, "Alice in Wonderland."

But his music was also wildly grandiose, which marked it as both contemporary and aesthetically complex. The first words of the piece— "Walk into my parlor, said the Spider to the Fly" —are sung by the baritone to a deceptively simple melody, which starts to twist in itchy delight when the spider points to the "winding stair" he wants the fly to climb.

The fly responds near the top of the soprano's range with music that's all at once jumpy, anxious and aroused. The erotic subtext is obvious enough—and goes beyond simple sex into undertones of dominance and submission, a dark form of play with pain and bondage that's gone mainstream lately (in advertising imagery, for instance), but which you won't often hear, about in the classical concert hail.

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