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Songs of the Viola

for soprano, viola, cello, and piano

Text by Cynthia R. Fogg

premiered September 19, 2010
Gwendolyn Lytle, soprano; Cynthia Fogg, viola,
Tom Flaherty, cello, and Genevieve Feiwen Lee, piano

Bridges Hall of Music
Claremont, California

Songs of the Viola is an exploration of the life the violist. The large size of the shoulder-borne viola has various acoustic and musical ramifications. Its sound is neither as brilliant as the violin's, nor as booming as the cello's. In its role as middle child of the string family, the viola rarely carries either prominent melodic material or harmony-defining bass parts. In fact, its frequent relegation to providing "mere filler" parts in ensembles is at least part of the inspiration of a large collection of viola jokes. And yet, when the viola does take the center stage, it sings with a vivid, powerful, warm, and unforgettable voice. The violist's pride and joy is the C string, which has more substantial bass than the violin can produce, with a clarity not found on the cello. Viola parts function as the glue in chamber music settings, and in orchestras, violists get to sit in best seats in the house. In the midst of swirling winds and strings, one hears a blend of sound that may not even reach the Founders Circle in the audience.

Grand Pause is an ode to all who love to play the viola and, for whatever reasons, don't. The viola is quite a bit larger than the violin, but violists are not generally larger than violinists. This disparity can lead to various frustrations, aches and pains, which can result in a tragic if temporary separation of instrument and instrumentalist. Grand Pause compassionately salutes viola-deprived violists everywhere.

Frets proposes a possible design improvement for the instrument.

The Heartbeat of the Universe proclaims the superiority of the viola and affirms its central role in the cosmos.

 








4

I. Grand Pause
Since first I was forced to divorce the viola
my life has become a prolonged hemiola 1
I’ve lost my charisma
gone is my machisma
existence is just an extended melisma.2

My problems? Fortissimo!
Frustrations? Sforzissimo!
My happiness? Pianississississississississimo.3

I long for Giocoso! Capriccioso!
Piu strepitoso!4 Vittorioso!
To play on the C string is so fabuloso!

That’s why my happiness starts to crescendo
That’s when my hopes will begin to stringendo

Like rolling arpeggios driving toward heaven!
Galloping, soaring in vibrant elevenths!5            

And now here’s the climax:
fermata with tremolo6 !

Life then comes to a grand pause
which was certainly not what I planned, ‘cause

Since first I was forced to divorce the viola
I feel as defunct as a junked pianola 7
I feel stone cold like an old victrola8
I feel enfolded with mold, like an old gorgonzola 9

Whether life is morendo10
or just largamente,11
my life is diminuendo al niente.12

 

 

1 a particular kind of syncopation that seems to ignore the prevailing meter.
2 when a syllable needs more than one note. Sometimes a lot more.
3 veryveryveryveryvery soft.
4 appropriately noisy
5 wider leaps than singers should be asked for, but nearly rhymes with heaven
6 shoeshine motion with bow
7 a brand of pianistless piano.
8 a distant, windup ancestor of the iPod.
9 a cheese with more dependence on mold than is typical.
10 dying away, as life must, eventually.
11 broadly
12 softer and softer and softer and softer and softer and softer and softer and softer and softer

 


II. Frets
A fingerboard that fingers get lost on
that stretches from here to Boston
I don’t ask a lot. It’s not a Communist plot!
Just why can’t we have what the others have got?

A fingerboard long and mysterious
the sight of it makes me delirious . . .
But there’s no need for absolution
when there’s such a simple solution!

Why can’t violas just have frets?13
No one would ever have regrets
            no epithets
            no “place your bets”
Why can’t violas just have frets?
Why can’t violas just have frets?

When playing Bartok string quartets
why don’t they give us safety nets?
‘cause when we miss, no one forgets
everyone sweats
we incur debts
and this affects
our self-respect
and this begets
thoughts of death threats
raised bayonets

Pianos have keys, traversed with ease.
The simplicity brings me to my knees
and a pianist can play with impunity
for she knows she can play out of tune – if she
makes this transgression
an entire profession
of tuners proclaims her immunity.

The guitar is indefensibly indebted
to the fact that it’s refreshingly fretted
and don’t ever forget that all bets are off
for those lutenists when those frets are off!

There are keys on clarinets!
for the tone deaf, castanets
so let’s go get some frets
and have no more nightmares of death threats
Hey, we could all be Heifetz!

Just give us frets!
Just give us frets!
Give us frets!

So – listen, folks!
It’s really all a dreadful hoax
that consistently provokes
viola jokes!14
Aren’t we scapegoats?
We really can play all those notes!

Why can’t violas just have frets?
No one would have regrets
            no epithets
            no “place your bets”
Why can’t violas just have frets?
Why can’t violas just have frets?

13 note finder tools on guitars, etc.

14 example supplied by performers.

III. Heartbeat of the Universe
Ever since I was a very young child
I've been obsessed, I've been possessed, I've been beguiled
By the prospects of being
An opera singer
I felt I was a dead ringer
for Pamina
or Nina
Despina
or the Queena
The Night. . .
That was my burgeoning joy and delight.

(and of course, I never could say no
to the chance to portray Papageno!)

Gilbert and Sullivan? Surely the Ring!
I was crying, and vying
And dying to sing!

But - one rather unfortunate situation
provoked near asphyxiation
I sing like this -----------
and she sings like that --------------
the rest needs no explanation.

Well 'twas then that I found
my favorite sound
A sound you can wrap your ears around.

Now tell me when given an honest choice,
what can outsing the human voice?
You're right! You're right! The viola!
and you're equally right to extolla! 16

Hail to thee O Bratschelein! 17
that doth the human voice outshine.
You're clearly meant to circumvent
those instruments that squeak and whine! 18
From heaven sent, to represent
the King and Queen of Instruments
a sound that comforts, strengthens, stirs
The Heartbeat of the Universe!

Come here! Stand here!
and rest this thing here on your shoulder
(Already, you're starting to smolder)
Draw this thing across the string
Do you feel your whole skeleton starting to ring?
And your jaw comes alive
like bees in a hive
with vibration -
such elation!

And while you're feasting
on the sound of the C string
you feel your sinuses starting to hum
like your head's inside a big bass drum.

You're a gong! You're a consort of timpani!
You're Beethoven's Choral symphony!

The string, it swings in a silver-white blur
You forget who you are
You forget where you were!

You're inspired! With the propensity
for swooping and soaring intensity!
When the bow's in the groove,
the planets will move.
It even increases bone density!

Ooooh I'm ravenous
For that cavernous
chocolate caramel hot fudge sound, -
a sound you can wrap your ears around.

So-
if you're feeling aggressively restively stressed
and your effervescence has evanesced
if your perspicuity's losing acuity
if your personality's lost its zest

Hurry up!
Don't wait!
Just go now!
In any way you know how
Take a snow plow
A bus! A cab! A train! A jet!
Or a strollah 19
Go out and get yourself a viola!

(Refrain:
The Heartbeat of the Universe!
The Heartbeat of the Universe!
The Heartbeat of the Universe!)

16. Bostonian for "extol her"
17. Bratsche: the sweet-sounding German word for viola. -lein: German for loved one
18. a veiled and bitter reference to a smaller, viola-like object
19. Bostonian for a vehicle that almost rhymes with "viola"