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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Umbrian Landscape With Saint (2005)
Text Writer
Francis d’Assisi (movement 3)
Publisher
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Category
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
2005
Duration
23 Minutes
Chorus
opt chorus
Programme Note
John Harbison Umbrian Landscape With Saint (2005)

First performance:
February 25, 2007
Chicago Chamber Musicians
Chicago, IL

Composer Note:
In May 2001 I accepted an invitation to work for a month at Civitella Ranieri, in central Umbria. As soon as I arrived I felt the landscape to be filled with significance. Working first with this landscape, I began my piece for the entire fifteen-instrument complement of the Chicago Chamber Musicians.

In Matthew 20, a young man eager to be perfect in faith says to Jesus, "What lack I yet?" Jesus' answer: "Go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me." And the young man? "He went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions."

A millennium later another young rich man, Giovanni (Francis) Bernardone, "King of the Revellers," met this challenge. At the moment when he first gave his cloak to a needy man, his life, and soon the church as a whole, was rejuvenated. Not long after St. Francis' death and canonization, the Church capitalized on his great popular appeal, an appeal based on a credo of reverence for all created things, by commissioning the largest basilica in Christendom, in the saint's little hometown, Assisi. It is hard to imagine a less appropriate response to Francis' message than this show of ecclesiastical grandeur. Fortunately Giotto was commissioned to paint scenes from the life of the saint in the upper church, and anyone even briefly in front of them is brought back to the fundamental facts of the Franciscan message. So after my landscape prelude, dominated by simple chords in a short-long rhythmic pattern, interrupted just once by a flock of St. Francis' birds, I present, as a second movement, ten panels from Giotto's cycle of the life of St. Francis, a set of short variations, as follows:
I. Francis Gives his Cloak to the Poor Man (violin, violin, bassoon)
II. Francis Drives the Demons out of Arezzo (English horn, trombone, tuba)
III. Vision of the Flaming Chariots (flute, clarinet, piano)
IV. Vision of the Heavenly Thrones (viola, cello, bass)
V. Trial by Fire (trumpet, trumpet, horn)
VI. Francis in Ecstasy (trumpet, trumpet, horn)
VII. Miracle of the Spring (viola, cello, bass)
VIII. Francis Preaches to the Birds (flute, clarinet, piano)
IX. Francis Receives the Stigmata (English horn, trombone, tuba)
X. Death of St. Francis (violin, violin, bassoon)
I planned as my third movement a "meditation" on Francis' beautiful Hymn to All Created Things, which stands proudly at the front of many anthologies of Italian poetry. But I was increasingly compelled to deal more directly with the words, which resisted paraphrase, and soon I was composing the entire hymn for chorus and instruments.

Obviously this is a problem, because the Chicago Chamber Musicians do not include a chorus! I arrived at a way to create two parallel versions, one with singers, one without, by accompanying the stanzas of the poem with distinct instrumental groups, so that the listeners who wished to follow the text, in a purely instrumental performance, could orient themselves.

Few have ever been able, as Francis was, to joyfully accept the toughest and most compassionate elements of the Christian message. He inspires us to conserve, pare down, simplify, and trust.

— John Harbison

Performances
Reviews
The 22-minute piece is inspired by the life of Francis of Assisi, especially in its evocations of the captivating simplicity of the Umbrian landscape, Giotto's famous frescos and Francis' poetry ("Brother Sun, Sister Moon"). The work's three sections respond in an inviting and intriguing way that recalls similar pleasing integrations of antique and present-day music by Britten and Respighi. It would have been preferable — and illuminating — if the Mozart had been dropped and the Harbison played twice.
Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times, 2007,01/01/0001
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