It isn't easy to classify Assistant Professor of Music Vineet Shende's music, but there is something deeply familiar in his lush musical phraseology. Whether composing for orchestra, chorus, or chamber ensemble, his works are characterized by colorful orchestrations and dynamic changes in mood. He often mingles classical and world traditions, creating works that span musical genres and trace a kind of lyrical narrative.
On April 13, 2008, the Portland Symphony Orchestra premiered Shende’s latest and quite possibly his most complex work entitled “Three Longfellow Poems.”
He turned to Bowdoin's famous son for the textual framework of the cycle, finding in Longfellow's works, "Daybreak," "The Warning," and "The Occultation of Orion," an arc whose theme is hope born, hope lost, and hope restored.
“I think people tend to see Longfellow as a quaint 19th century poet and I wanted to convey the power and relevance of his poetry,” Shende said. “I find in [the poems] reflections of my feelings about the state of the world, politics, and culture.”
Shende often finds inspiration in poetry and dreams that give his works extramusical meanings, “though hopefully,” Shende said, “listeners don't really need to know what they are to enjoy the music.”
However, with Shende's work, uncovering the extramusical context is half the fun.
The work begins with “Daybreak,” which “describes a wind that is born in the ocean and travels across Maine’s ports, forests, farms, and towns, infusing all it touches with a sense of hope and optimism for the new day,” Shende wrote in the program notes for the April 13 performance.
Listen to clips from Three Longfellow Poems (2008) by Associate Professor of Music Vineet Shende, and read the text of Longfellow's poems to accompany the music.
Elizabeth Weigle, soprano soloist
Bowdoin College Chamber Choir
Portland Symphony Orchestra, Paul Polivnick, conductor
World Premiere recording
April 13, 2008
This central motif, or musical phrase, of “hope” runs throughout the work, beginning with a clarinet line in “Daybreak” that spreads through all sections of the orchestra, just as the poem’s wind twists through the countryside.
“The second movement [‘The Warning’],” Shende wrote, “deals with the horrible tragedy that can result when all sense of hope is denied.” The poem, which treats the Biblical tale of Samson (who is imprisoned by the Philistines and later destroys them, himself, and their temple by pulling down the structure’s two central pillars) as an allegory for slavery in America, had a redoubled significance and relevance for Shende through an “eerily prescient…similarity between this story and the terrible events of September 11, 2001.”
Here, the intervals are compressed and the “hope” motif is inverted. A central choral fugue builds in tension as Sampson exerts his might on the pillars of the temple, and “when the dust settles,” Shende wrote, “the soprano soloist, accompanied by the choir, sings Longfellow’s cautionary lines.” In those final lines of the poem, Longfellow warns that slavery, as a “poor, blind Samson,” may “shake the pillars of the Commonweal’ / Till the vast temple of our liberties / A shapeless mass of wreck and rubbish lies.”
“There is resolution in the final poem,” Shende said, “which talks about the story of Orion and Diana. After Orion, wounded by Oenopion, vows to take his revenge out on all the beasts of the forest, he is confronted by Diana. Realizing the destructive effects of his aggression, he renounces his ‘reign of violence’ and ascends into the heavens."
The final poem contains rich celestial imagery, which Shende used as a fascinating point of departure for one of his extramusical inspirations.
“I tried to create a corresponding ‘music of the spheres,’” Shende wrote, “by taking the ratios between the radii, orbits, axes, and masses of the first six planets and moons and mapping this information to pitches and rhythms in particular instruments.”
“Hopefully,” he said, “it will simulate their orbit patterns. There are also instruments for each planet: Mercury is assigned to glockenspiel and solo violin; Venus is the flute and harp; Earth is oboe and marimba; Mars is the trumpet and chimes; Jupiter is the majestic trombones and cellos; and Saturn is double-basses and bassoons.”
The 35-minute work is scored for soprano soloist, choir, and orchestra, and will feature the 90 mighty, combined voices of the Bowdoin Chamber Choir and Oratorio Chorale — both of which previously have performed works by Shende.
“It’s a very difficult piece,” Shende said. “There isn’t a simple line for anyone. The soprano soloist has it the hardest of all because she’s singing the entire time, but she was flawless and just great to work with.”
The soprano soloist is Elizabeth Weigle who, with guitarist Daniel Lippel, recently recorded Shende's “Sonetos de amor” for Focus Records. Paul Polivnick guest conducted the PSO.
“I had been thinking about the piece for quite some time and it had lived only in my brain for about two years,” Shende said, “so it was incredibly gratifying to hear it on April 13.”
Shende is unsure when the piece will be performed again, however, the concert was broadcast on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network in May and we're pleased to present three clips of the Portland Symphony Orchestra premiere.