Written for cellist Stephen Balderston, Bowings without Words was completed in 2008. In 2004 I was invited to compose a new work for Stephen to be premiered at the Santa Barbara Chamber Music Festival. I was working on an opera about Houdini at the time, and I selected one of the arias from this work and adapted it for cello and piano. Gradually I began to make transcriptions of several of my song cycles and operatic arias for cello and piano. These pieces now make up the three books of Bowings without Words that is altogether a sprawling 45-minute work. In my performer’s notes I suggested to Stephen that he feel free to play one book of pieces at a time, or even make up groups of pieces from the three books that fit together in contrasting and logical ways. Tonight is the first performance of Book III, based on my 1994 song cycle, Six Spanish Songs, based on the poems of Federico García Lorca. Book I is based on my opera about Houdini (words by Dorothy Louise) and Book II is based on a song cycle originally based on the poetry of Robert Frost (the lyrics are now based on Civil War letters). The title of the entire work refers to Felix Mendelssohn’s solo piano pieces Lieder ohne Worte, first published in 1832. I was also inspired during the composition of these pieces by Franz Liszt’s solo piano transcriptions of lieder by Franz Schubert.
My aim was to make these pieces for cello and piano something more than literal transcriptions, so freedom was used in adapting the vocal line for the cello. I decided to incorporate idiomatic string writing, but only to the extent that it would not obscure the essentially lyrical nature of the solo part. My feeling is that the cello is particularly capable of imparting the emotional content of these songs. The poems remain as a subtext of course, and it might be helpful to have (in translation) a few lines selected from each poem:
La guitarra (The Guitar): “The weeping of the guitar begins…It weeps the way wind cries over the snowdrifts.”
Canción tonta (Silly Song): “Mama, I wish I were silver. Son, you’d be very cold.”
Media luna (Half Moon): “The moon goes over the water. How tranquil the sky is!”
Canción de jinete (Rider’s Song): “Little black horse, Whither with your dead rider?”
Danza-en el huerto de la Peternera (Flamenco Dance in the Garden): “In the garden’s night, six Gypsy girls, dressed in white are dancing.”
Alba (Dawn): “Bells of Córdoba before daybreak. Bells of dawn.”
November 6, 2010: Premiere of Bowings without Words III for cello and piano, Stephen Balderston, cellist, with Aglika Angelova, pianist, Barshinger Center for the Performing Arts, Sound Horizons Series, 8 P.M., Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, PA.
November 9, 2010: Performance of Bowings without Words III for cello and
piano, Stephen Balderston, cellist, with Anglika Angelova, pianist, De
Paul University Concert Hall, 8 PM, Chicago, ILL.