Interrogating the Landscape: Notes on Late Victorians

for Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, March 1995

I could not write.  I had been asked to write: the project was to be a set of songs for mezzo-soprano.  But I could not write.

We—I and thirty other people from my church, an ad-hoc hospice—had just buried Bob, a man we hardly knew until he fell ill with AIDS.  And Don, whom I had just directed in an opera, was failing.

The thing that seemed unacceptable to me was how ordinary this was all becoming.

“We have grown accustomed to figures disappearing from the landscape.  Does this not lead us to interrogate the landscape?”

—Richard Rodriguez, “Late Victorians”

The only thing I want to do,” I told a friend, “is set this article in Harper’s.”

In October of nineteen ninety-one, Richard Rodriguez wrote a memoir of San Francisco in the first years of the plague.  A central image was the Victorian house: those old Victorians that waves of San Franciscans had reclaimed, had refurbished, and were now leaving empty as AIDS swept the city.  The once-haunted houses were becoming haunted once again.

The essay was beautiful. But it was too long: too much.  I was as resistant to the idea as I was drawn to it.  I didn’t want to write this experience.  I didn’t recall choosing to witness it.

I needed to write this song cycle, and I could not.

*

I reread Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae, particularly its chapter on Emily Dickinson.  Paglia’s take on Dickinson was violently different from anything I’d read before.  For the first time I saw an icy glee, a perverse refusal to look away, in a quatrain like

Ruin is formal, devil’s work
Consecutive and slow;
Fall in an instant no man did;
Slipping is crash’s law.

That season The Washington Post asked me to review the National Chamber Orchestra’s performance of a famed Haydn symphony, the “Farewell.”  In it, Haydn had incorporated a small staging joke.  He meant to remind his patron prince that the musicians he was keeping in his country palace very much wanted—and deserved—to return to town.  So Haydn wrote a last movement in which, person by person, section by section, the musicians left the stage, leaving only two violinists to carry on the song in a bare forest of music stands.

It played as a joke in 1732.  But it seemed very different to me now.

*

I ended up writing something quite else for the mezzo-soprano piece.  But another piece—this piece—had found shape.  I started sketching it at once.  The formal, oblique Rodriguez text would be spoken.  Four Dickinson poems, singing everything the Rodriguez would not say, would be sung.  And the four movements would be linked by solo cadenzas written for players from each choir of the orchestra, after which they would leave the stage.

In its final form, Late Victorians is not unlike the Stations of the Cross.  There are still Catholic churches in which you will find twelve friezes, or sculptures, representing Christ’s journey to Calvary and, beyond, to transformation.  During Lent, the faithful walk from frieze to frieze; meditate upon the image; and move on to the next.  They make a kind of living rosary.  The images themselves are static: mere panels.  Jesus falls the first time.  Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. It is the pilgrim who is dynamic, making the journey from image to image, walking the walk.  It is in the heart of the pilgrim that the experience builds.

Late Victorians is meant in tribute to the living and in memory of the dead.  I owe a debt of gratitude to Sylvia Alimena, to Kent Ashcraft, to James Petosa, and to the men and women of Eclipse Chamber Orchestra.  And I dedicate this score to the memories of the thousands of the fallen, particularly to those of Michael Patterson, Bob Williams, Raymond Davila, and Donald Poe.