Metcalf’s “Doom-Begotten Music” premieres in NY

Susan Galasso

Lawrence composition professor Joanne Metcalf’s orchestral song cycle “Doom-Begotten Music” had its off-campus premiere last weekend in New York’s Garden City Cathedral as part of the “Music in the Cathedral” series. The work was performed by the Adelphi University Symphony Orchestra and tenor soloist John Goodman, and conducted by Christopher Lyndon-Gee.
John Potter of the Hilliard Ensemble, Metcalf’s longtime collaborator, commissioned the work, which was originally written for tenor and piano. It was later rescored specifically for the Lawrence Symphony Orchestra, and the orchestral version, with John Potter as the soloist, premiered at Lawrence in 2004.
The text for “Doom-Begotten Music” was taken from Edwin Arlington Robinson’s epic poem “Tristram,” an adaptation of the saga of doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde for which Robinson won a Pulitzer in 1927. Professor Metcalf describes the music as melancholic and often tempestuous, in keeping with the themes of fate, grief and loss in the poem.
“Robinson was best known for his short poems,” says Professor Metcalf, “but his great love was epic poetry. His writing is almost Shakespearean-the language is so rich and his psychological insight is so acute … he captures both the transcendent and the profane in human experiences, revealing each to be fatefully linked to the other.”
During her sabbatical last fall, Metcalf was a fellow at the MacDowell colony in New Hampshire, where Robinson was one of the first fellows. He wrote much of “Tristram” there. “His former studio was just down the road from mine, and it was inspiring to know that he had written so much of his poetry so nearby,” says Metcalf.
Metcalf originally thought she would write an opera based on the book-length poem, which she says she ran across completely by accident. Instead, she decided to set some of the more reflective passages in the text.
“Even though the poem is about the Tristan and Isolde saga, it seemed so universal to me-everyone has those feelings of grief and loss,” she says. These dark and emotionally wrenching themes are echoed in the title, taken from a line of the poem that refers to “the torture of a doom-begotten music.”
Metcalf, who flew to New York to attend the performance, has a characteristically busy season ahead of her. “I have 25 to 30 performances a year, and I miss most of them,” she says.
She will travel to Italy at the end of May for performances of her pieces “Il nome del bel fior,” “Kyria christifera” and “Ego dilecto” by the German vocal ensemble Singer Pur at the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies in Florence. Singer Pur’s recording of “Il nome del bel fior” won the 2005 Echo-klassik Prize for best vocal ensemble performance.
Professor Metcalf is currently composing a new work for wind ensemble. Peter Mast, Lawrence professor and band director, commissioned the piece for the LU Wind Ensemble, along with a consortium of four other universities.
It will premiere at Lawrence November 4. Professor Metcalf enjoys the opportunity to write for Lawrence ensembles. “The most wonderful thing in the world is to write music for my own students,” she says.