Monday, July 16, 2012

Music Monday: Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine

Each Monday, I share a piece of music I really enjoy. This week I decided to share another something from my college days, an a cappella choir piece by the modern composer Eric Whitacre.

Eric Whitacre (b. 1970)
"Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine" (2001)

This is the first time I've featured a living composer. I mentioned last time that hearing stories about Mozart, or other child prodigies, makes me feel like I haven't accomplished anything in my own life. Contemporary composers do the same thing, maybe even moreso. They're living proof that great music is still being created, that it isn't all in the past. Whitacre was only two years older than I am now when he wrote this piece, already an accomplished and well-recognized composer. I've pretty much done nothing of note since graduating college.


I'm getting off topic.

"Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine" is a piece for a cappella choir. I was lucky enough to sing this with the chamber choir in my junior year of college. I must admit, I was intimidated. It was my first year in the select group, and this was one of the most challenging pieces -- maybe THE most challenging -- I'd experienced up until then. But, once we had it down, it was also one of the most exciting. This is still one of my favorite pieces that I've ever performed.

And we performed it A LOT. The summer after my junior year, our chamber choir went to an international choir festival in Sweden. (That was one of three times I've been out of the country, all choir-related trips. I'm thankful for my years in music for many reasons, but the opportunity to see Europe on three separate occasions is high on the list.) One of the requirements of the festival was to sing a song by a national composer, and this was the piece our director picked to represent the United States. Over the course of that year, we sang this song at pretty much every concert we gave, each time becoming a little more nuanced, coming a little closer to perfection, in preparation for our trip. And, though I think we were all a little nervous it might turn out otherwise, our performance there was definitely one of our best.

Whitacre collaborated very closely with his librettist, Charles Anthony Silvestri (not to be confused with Alan Silvestri, the film score composer), with the music and the words being created together. In Whitacre's own words, "We started with a simple concept: what would it sound like if Leonardo da Vinci were dreaming? And more specifically, what kind of music would fill the mind of such a genius? The drama would tell the story of Leonardo being tormented by the calling of the air, tortured to such degree that his only recourse was to solve the riddle and figure out how to fly."

And, here's the results of their efforts, including Silvestri's text. If there's one thing more annoying than listening to something in a foreign language and not being able to understand, it's listening to something in English and not being able to understand. So for something in English that has bits of Italian dropped in . . . well, I figured it was best to include it.

Leonardo dreams of his flying machine...

Tormented by visions of flight and falling,
More wondrous and terrible each than the last,
Master Leonardo imagines an engine
To carry a man up into the sun.

And as he's dreaming the heavens call him,
Softly whispering their siren-song:
"Leonardo. Leonardo, vieni a volare."
("Leonardo. Leonardo, come fly.")

L'uomo colle sua congiengniate e grandi ale,
facciendo forza contro alla resistente aria.
(A man with wings large enough and duly connected,
might learn to overcome the resistance of the air.)

Leonardo dreams of his flying machine...

As the candles burn low he paces and writes,
Releasing purchased pigeons one by one
Into the golden Tuscan sunrise.

And as he dreams, again the calling,
The very air itself gives voice:
"Leonardo. Leonardo, vieni a volare."
("Leonardo. Leonardo, come fly.")

Vicina all'elemento del fuoco...
(Close to the sphere of elemental fire...)

Scratching quill on crumpled paper,

Rete, canna, filo, carta.
(Net, cane, thread, paper.)

Images of wing and frame and fabric fastened tightly.

...sulla suprema sottile aria.
( the highest and rarest atmosphere.)

Master Leonardo da Vinci dreams of his flying machine...

As the midnight watchtower tolls,
Over rooftop, street, and dome,
The triumph of a human being ascending
In the dreaming of a mortal man.

Leonardo steels himself,
takes one last breath,
and leaps...

“Leonardo, vieni a volare! Leonardo, sognare!”
("Leonardo, come fly! Leonardo, dream!")


Thanks for reading my latest Music Monday, my little way of sharing something I'm passionate about while introducing you to music you may be unfamiliar with. Let me know if you've enjoyed it, and let me know if there's something out there you think I should listen to.

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