Ensemble with Voice
December 4, 2008
Symphony Space, New York, NY
Mark Peskanov, violin / Gregory Singer, violin / Maurycy Banaszek, viola / Adrian Daurov, cello / Robert Frankenberry, tenor /

James Broughton

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Boosey & Hawkes

My Wondrous the Merge is a setting, for string quartet and baritone/narrator, of James Broughton's rhapsodic poem of that title. It is a melodrama — that popular form of a century ago — which dramatically declaims, rather than sings, a text, against a musical accompaniment.

"Wondrous the Merge" is the title-poem of the author's 1977 publication entitled, appropriately, Ecstasies, and "redemption through love" is its theme. It tells the true-life story of James — a curmudgeonly, married 61-year-old professor — and Joel, his 26-year-old hippie student. Defying "normal" expectations, it is Joel who seduces his reluctant, protesting elder, not only into the younger man's bed, but also out of James's staid, conventional, "somnambulist" life. Eventually, the poet surrenders, and the heart of the poem chronicles his ecstatic life-change and his embrace of heretofore-long-held-in-check sexuality. At one frenzied point, the single word "yes" is repeated over and over, as a kind of rapturous litany.

The phrase "redemption through love" has, of course strong Wagnerian connection. Because the unleashing of powerful sexual feeling is the engine that drives both Tristan and Isolde (through a love potion) and Wondrous the Merge, I weave bits of the famous Tristan Prelude music into the Wondrous fabric, connecting two expressions of ecstasy. One happens to be a medieval tale of heterosexual passion; the other, a contemporary gay "coming out" story. The emotional essence, however, is very much the same.

The opening music of Wondrous the Merge is seethingly romantic, but leads into Fuga I, with is more contained, even classical, expression. The initial theme returns, is developed and comes to a huge climax before it subsides into the first Tristan quote, upon which Fuga II is built. In this fugue, the Tristan theme floats over a regularly moving countersubject, made up of two half-step-related thirty-second notes oscillating between octaves. There is a climax, and then a transition to the Aria in which the baritone, accompanied by a "heavenly" shimmer of string arpeggios, ecstatically sings the words central to the poem's message:

"Wondrous Wondrous the merge Wondrous the merge of soulmates The surprises of recognition Wondrous the flowerings of renewal Wondrous the wings of the air Clapping their happy approval."

Without pause, there is a recapitulation of Fuga I. In the coda that follows, the baritone joins the strings in a fleeting remembrance of the Aria, and finally the cello concludes with a vanishing, exhausted allusion to Tristan.

Wondrous the Merge was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation for the Elements String Quartet in 2001 and was "composed with my husband, Ray Warman, in mind," as the title-page inscription reads.

A truth-stranger-than-fiction epilogue:
The real-life Joel Singer is the Joel of James Broughton's poem. The day I finished writing Wondrous the Merge, Ray and I went out to dinner to celebrate. Sitting just across from us was a dear friend and neighbor, the octogenarian writer/artist/explorer Tobias Schneebaum, who introduced to us his attractive younger companion. "This is Joel Singer," he said. Now, there must be some hundreds of Joel Singers, I thought. This couldn't be him. But still, I had to ask, "You're not the Joel Singer of 'Wondrous the Merge' fame, are you?" And so we met, in a magically serendipitous moment, and have remained friends ever since.

- David Del Tredici, 28 May 2003