I’d been an ardent fan of Thomas Hampson’s singing when, a thousand years ago, I reviewed his Kennedy Center recital debut for The Washington Post: so I was thrilled—thrilled—when Peggy told me that Music Accord wanted to commission a piece for him and the excellent Jupiter String Quartet, and that Tom had suggested me. The piece that resulted, Aristotle, was given its premiere in May 2013 at the Mondavi Center in California before traveling to Alice Tully Hall in New York and Jordan Hall in Boston and Nathan Gunn subsequently performed it with the Jupiters during his residency in Champaign Urbana.

Notes on the Piece

A piece for baritone and string quartet can, legitimately, be nothing more—or nothing less—than a song group, or cycle, with the strings standing in for the more usual piano.  But if you’re awarded the privilege of making music for a singing actor of the caliber of Thomas Hampson, and for young musicians of the caliber of the Jupiters, you want—well, I wanted— to compose a piece that’s both a substantial monologue and a structurally rewarding string quartet at the same time.   Billy Collins’ pellucid Aristotle made that possible.  His poem is built in three long but continuous sections, each spinning numerous, surprising variations on some necessary (to the philosopher) element of drama—beginning, middle, end.  The range of Collins’s images nudged the string writing into new (for me) colors and registers while demanding each movement retain its own character.  However, while Collins’s language was minutely expressive of his narrator’s observations, it remained reticent about his emotions.  How does the singer experience, rather than merely list,  “the letter A… the song of betrayal, salted with revenge…the hat on a peg, and, outside the cabin, falling leaves?” The poem doesn’t tell you, so the vocal line must: which made the baritone’s music needful, urgent, dramatic rather than merely decorative.  Aristotle the poem is about drama.  As well as a tribute to the artistry of its performers, I intend Aristotle the score as a drama itself.

Original Text

By Billy Collins

This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage
as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her,
your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels begin to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.

This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes—
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward’s child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle—
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall—
too much to name, too much to think about.

And this is the end,
the car running out of road,
the river losing its name in an ocean,
the long nose of the photographed horse
touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
the empty wheelchair,
and pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
and the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period
and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit
thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
what we have all been waiting for,
what everything comes down to,
the destination we cannot help imagining,
a streak of light in the sky,

a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.


Mark Adamo's Aristotle can already be ranked as a 21st-century vocal masterpiece. Set to a poem by Billy Collins, the work is about the passage of time and the stages of life. It resonates on a personal level, especially for those of us moving into the later decades of our span. Mark Adamo's writing and the playing of the Jupiter Quartet provided Mr. Hampson with a marvelous vehicle in which the singer's artistry is fully presented.

Oberon's Grove

29th April 2013

He was a one-man Greek chorus in Collins’s poem, which muses on the beginning, the middle, and the end of life (thus following Aristotle’s precept) and seems to wonder why with time doesn’t come greater wisdom. Adamo wreathes the string quartet’s chugging lines around the baritone’s recitative, giving him plenty of room, and Hampson took it, agitated over the difficult births at the end of the “beginning” section, tender when he came to “the last elephant in the parade.” Collins’s poem ends with “falling leaves”; Adamo’s vocal line actually rises at this point. I wouldn’t have objected to hearing it encored.

Jeffrey Gantz, Boston Globe

29th April 2013

Aristotle is a fourteen-minute song, or mini-cycle, based on a three-part poem by former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins... The poem's open-ended ambiguity and the stream-of-conscious clichés inspire Adamo, the composer of the popular opera Little Women, to a series of musical snapshots, a stylistic sampler in episodic shorthand.

In a somewhat freer harmonic language than Adamo used in his opera, the instruments start with tight, pregnant dissonance, play repeatedly with ambiguous irresolution and end in a suavely understated rhapsody of glissandos to evoke the final images of "a streak of light in the sky … falling leaves." Irony gives way to sober lyricism...

Adamo's versatile vocal writing makes this a sure-fire vehicle for a virtuoso singer such as Hampson, whose rigor and polish were concealed by a show of casual spontaneity.

David J. Baker, Opera News

28th April 2013

That three-part song proved the highlight of baritone Thomas Hampson and the Jupiter String Quartet’s appearance at the Mondavi Center for the Arts on Wednesday evening.

Adamo’s music for Aristotle was married to Billy Collins’ vividly impressionistic poem of the same name. It’s easy to see why Adamo chose it for his musical inspiration. The 74-line poem nails the idea of how stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But make no mistake — the poem is far from a dry incantation of Aristotelian principles. Rather, it’s an intimate and vivid skein of images akin to the mise-en-scène of an experimental film, albeit one that hews to tried-and-true dramatic structure.

Edward Ortiz, San Francisco Classical Voice

24th April 2013