In a Labyrinth, Channeling Shakespeare: The Music of Joseph Summer
The opening question was innocent enough. Joseph Summer’s settings of the works of William Shakespeare, a significant part of his
and the majority of the works on the CDs considered here, are collectively known as
The Oxford Songs
. I knew a bit about the Oxfordian movement, a loose group of scholars, actors, and readers who hold that William Shakespeare could not have written the plays and poems attributed to him, and that Edward DeVere likely did. The movement is currently at a high point of public awareness due to the attention it has received from the sensational and fictionalized 2011 motion picture
, but there have been other, more considered explorations of the belief. So I asked, and what followed was one of the most intensely interesting e-mail conversations—replete with references to online resources and recommendations of films and books—I’ve ever had. A mere sampling follows:
Summer said, “In regard to the authorship question, I first became disenchanted with the orthodox Stratfordian position as a young man upon reading
Love’s Labour’s Lost
. I couldn’t understand how a commoner could have (1) known enough about the historical events to relate them, or (2) written of them had he the information and not been severely punished. Then I began exploring the authorship question for a long period of time.
“Like Twain, at first, I shared the opinion that ‘Shaxper’ hadn’t written the works, but not until I read Charlton Ogburn’s brilliantly constructed argument,
The Mysterious William Shakespeare
, did I appreciate how there was actually no authorship question whatsoever;
: William Shakespeare was the pseudonym of Edward DeVere. Ogburn’s tome is 800 pages long, and meticulously plotted. After reading Ogburn (and also more than 40 books and essays pro and con; even the 1950s moot court proceedings in the American Bar Association Journal) I reread all Shakespeare and finally understood (most importantly to me) the sonnets, and
; as well as comprehending Shakespeare’s disdain for the common folk; and, well, I could go on and on.
“My favorite bit of circumstantial evidence is the undisputed fact (undisputed even by Stratfordians, as the historical record is intact) that DeVere borrowed 3,000 pounds exactly from a Jewish Venetian money lender for an adventurous gamble on a boat that sank, and—consequently—he was financially devastated as a result. I have, over the years, responded to Stratfordians that if DeVere is not the author, one must at least admit that the bard had a fascination with DeVere’s life.”
Together we explored this subject for some time, expending enough words for a couple of these articles. Summer is an enthusiastic and well-versed exponent of the Oxfordian theory that this DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the body of plays and poems now attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon. “For instance,” Summer explained, “Shaxper of Avon didn’t bother to have his offspring learn to read. The Stratfordians admit, as they must, Shaxper’s eldest daughter was illiterate. (His other children are presumed illiterate, as there is no evidence they attended school, nor that they ever wrote even a letter.)
“I just set music to this passage from
Here in this island we arrived; and here
Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit
Than other princesses can, that have more time
For vainer hours and tutors not so careful.
“It’s Prospero explaining to Miranda how his homeschooling has been preferable to the education of princesses. Hard to reconcile the father/daughter play,
, written by a man who neglected to raise his daughter out of shameful ignorance.
“Before I researched DeVere, I had immense difficulty understanding Shakespeare’s choices. I don’t believe it is essential to the enjoyment of Shakespeare to know the author, nor even to care. My search for Shakespeare’s ipseity was motivated by my own quest to reconcile what I saw were certain attitudes, proclivities, a perspective which the orthodox analysts did not, to my satisfaction, illuminate. What was so funny to Shakespeare about torturing poor Malvolio? Why be so immensely cruel to him, and to every commoner with aspirations of self-improvement? To me, the haberdasher’s son, Olivia seems to have all the wrong proclivities whereas Malvolio should be admired.
“But, that’s just my perspective out here with the rest of the mob. I am erudite, but I had the opportunity because I grew up in a society, in the ’50s and ’60s, where a
person like me could be richly educated while lacking riches. My musical education was paid for by the state and patrons: with free private lessons and music theory and history classes provided by the Pittsburgh Centers for the Musically Talented. The Centers allowed those of us whose parents couldn’t afford the aforementioned to be taught by the best musicians in Pittsburgh. And the Centers had Oberlin Conservatory recruiter Karl Bewig visit every year, and he recruited me when I was 13, informing me why and when I would attend Oberlin, which I did on a full scholarship. None of that happens in the society chronicled and idealized by the arrogant 17th Earl. And yet, he’s still the greatest playwright that ever drew breath. So, unlike those who want to believe DeVere is the bard because they revere DeVere’s nobility, I detest it. But unlike those who believe that our greatest author had to be just any old guy from a little town who happened to be clever—a proposition I wish I could support—I don’t close my eyes to the bard’s authentic character. It’s not an error when at the end of nearly every comedy the arrogant young man, who has misjudged the girl, insulted the lower classes, is forgiven; it’s the way Shake-Speare thought.”
Here Summer offered tantalizing hints regarding his education and what sounded like a prodigious youth. There were some interesting stories regarding that which followed, but I will stick with Summer’s relationship with the Bard.
Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day
, the earliest of the CDs considered, offers settings of sonnets and speeches from Shakespeare’s plays.
Q: Would you be willing to tell me how you got interested in setting the works of Shakespeare (whoever he might be) and how you choose the texts to set?
A: My wife, Lisa, child Eve, and I were living in Tennessee in the 1990s when Lisa came into conflict with the state of Tennessee. Lawyers feared for our safety, and we were advised to flee. Our flight—which I have always referred to as our banishment—was to the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean. We lived there for a few years until the state of Tennessee was forced to admit their error, renounce their lawsuit against me, and compensate Lisa financially for their odious misbehavior. With our newfound wealth—well, relative wealth, for a professor and a composer—we left the beautiful islands and moved to Massachusetts where our daughter could attend the Boston Ballet School, and my wife could recommence her normal life as a professor of music therapy at a college.”
Summer continued, “During our exile on St. Thomas, I was forced to put aside, for the while, my operatic composing, because it was too difficult to bring all the material I needed to the islands. We were living in small quarters, and my operatic work required me to have space for all the sketches and such, plus large music paper. That is not to mention that the humidity in the islands made my normal inking too difficult. So, I decided that during our exile, I would work on smaller projects: art songs. Without my large library of books and poetry, I decided to use my desert island book collection, which included, naturally, the complete works of Edward De Vere, I mean, Shakespeare. I thought, if I can set “To Be or Not to Be,” then the rest of Shakespeare won’t be too difficult. I started there. After our banishment was finished, I decided to continue working on Shakespeare texts, as a way to keep my opera work feeling fresh. I spend 20 percent of my composing time on Shakespeare settings, and 80 percent on my operas. Though, recently, there has been some smearing of the boundaries as I wrote a
opera, incorporating earlier art song settings, and I am now working on a
“I choose texts based on contemporaneous inspiration, derived from events in my life. For example, here is a quote from program notes in 2010 about my setting of “If By Your Art” from
for soprano and harp. (Magen’s Bay is a lovely beach near where we lived. We could see this bay from our little home.)”
There was an occasion during our exile when our daughter, Eve, just shy of nine years old, was invited to a party on Magen’s Bay beach, but an approaching tropical storm threatened to cancel the festivities. My little girl grew wroth, and complained to me in an accusatory tone about the oncoming tempest. I inquired of her, with not a little impatience, whether she was angry with me about the fierce rain, and she replied that she was. I self-righteously protested that she shouldn’t hold me responsible for an act of God, but she would not desist in her ire, despite acknowledging that I did not control the weather. Naturally,
If By Your Art,
a passage from
came to mind: Miranda’s plea to her puissant father to quell the tempest, a feat which
accomplished. I wrote this aria immediately after the incident and ended the work with a samba meant to bring to mind the tropical locale, and, not incidentally, the samba is a wordless invention I used to sing to Eve before her first birthday, when she couldn’t sleep.
“I don’t ever set something that doesn’t touch me personally. There’s no system. I have always loved Shakespeare, and passages spring to my mind unbidden. When a text is taking space in my mind for a while, or with a certain poignancy, or intensity, I set the words. Here’s a brief example of a rationale for the setting of Sonnet CIV, written for and dedicated to my wife of 31 years:
My setting of Sonnet CIV (
To me, fair friend, you never can be old
) was written in 1995, a quarter century after first her ‘eye I eyed’ when my future bride glided down from her empyrean to sit beside me in the horn section of a high school orchestra rehearsal. Little did she know then how many successive seasons she would spend with me, spanning centuries, bridging millennia, her ‘beauty like a dial hand.’”
Summer added, “As Jimmy Durante so famously said, ‘I got a million of ’em,’ and so I do in regard my Shakespeare settings.”
And his catalog of Shakespeare works
large. However, the Bard is not Summer’s only inspiration, as demonstrated by the four operas based on Boccaccio’s
(“I’m working on a fifth. There will be seven, assuming I live long enough—probable according to actuarial tables, but that’s not adjusting for my misadventures on sundry continents.”) and I note, by the work on the second of the Albany CDs under consideration,
The Garden of Forking Paths
. This work for string quartet was inspired by the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. There is still a connection with the great English playwright, as one of the five movements takes its title from
, a Borges story in which a man mysteriously acquires the playwright’s memories while retaining his own. Summer uses a march by William Byrd, written for Edward DeVere, as thematic material for the tango-tinged movement. There is more though, as Summer is fascinated by Borges’s explorations of time, the imaginary, creativity, and coincidence, and writes four additional movements exploring these concepts in sound and structure. The intellectual underpinnings to these pieces is discussed in a short program note from the premiere, and in a rather extraordinary 50-page
Imaginary Program Note
printed in the program booklet.
This last, in the form of various letters and e-mails, reveals some of the thought behind the composition, with sundry information about Summer’s world travels and interests, as well as the answers to an interrogatory for another interview. When I asked about this alternately enlightening and digressive essay, he responded with another remarkable series of missives which would again exceed the scope of this article many times over. Perhaps all this will someday be the basis for a book on Joseph Summer. For now, here is a series of questions and answers which seemed revealing of the music and his method.
Q: I am usually pretty good at hearing influences, but I think in your case, unless you are paying homage or quoting or purposely evoking a composer, you have a very strongly personal voice.
A: Thank you, thank you, thank you. That is the greatest compliment I can receive.
Q: As a result, there is not an obvious stylistic school that one can use as a starting point—a point of orientation—when coming to your work. Obviously (to me anyway—feel free to dispute this) there is a strong early-Schoenberg influence in
An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain
. However, I’d be interested in your response to this ‘where does the music come from?’ sort of musing.
A: You are correct. Having studied with Richard Hoffmann at Oberlin, by choice despite his studio containing only serial composition students, I am heavily influenced by Schoenberg. I knew that my tonal music, which struck everyone at Oberlin at the time as bordering on mental incapacity, needed to acquire discipline. Hoffmann was at first most skeptical of accepting me into his studio, and bemoaned for a year my refusal to write serial music, but he acquiesced to my desire that he instruct me as if I were a serial composer. He insisted that every pitch and every rhythm that I wrote be rationally justified. Every pitch. Every rhythm. No explanation that it ‘sounded right.’ No improvising at the piano. I forced myself to write away from the piano, to make all my compositional decisions based on something I could defend from a structural or systematic reference. So, when Hoffmann would say ‘why’ to a particular chord, I could say, ‘because the chord in question when deconstructed linearly is the second four notes of the B theme,’ and when he asked why in regard the next chord I could answer ‘because the chord in question when deconstructed linearly is the first four notes of the B theme.’ Our lessons were six-hour extravaganzas every Friday afternoon for three years.
“But, with all that being said, I think my harmonic voice evolves from Richard Strauss: son of Wagner, grandson of Beethoven, then Mozart, then Bach. My rhythmic voice is derived latest, from Bartók and Stravinsky; Brahms’s flowing phrases and his revolution against the tyranny of the bar line are fundamental to my work. The structural foundations are contained in my musical old testament: Beethoven’s late string quartets. I suppose that the late quartets are for me
, or in the language of the Old Testament—and its name—
. That begs the question of what’s the analogous New Testament: Bartók’s string quartets. Behind my desk I keep the complete scores to the Beethoven and Bartók quartets. Whenever I have a question, I can find the answer in one of those.”
Q: I assume some of the uniqueness, if I may, of your writing stems from a certain amount of isolation. At least, you claim not to follow contemporary music that much. How have you been able to compose all those years without performance, just for yourself, and scuba dive and travel without a university teaching job or the like since 1978? Or have I missed something?
A: The isolation allowed me to concentrate on the craft of composition, rather than the art of selling myself as a composer. I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend a decade and a half—more, actually—just sitting at my desk writing. The most important part of that isolation was that I could be hypercritical and still produce product. My wife, Lisa, wishes still that I had remained in my studio. She finds all this public production as shallow and self-serving on my part. In regard to performances, I must confess I don’t get much joy from performance, but I’m reluctant to amplify. Of course, it’s satisfying to…no, that’s not true, what I was going to say. I’m always uncomfortable at performances. I feel awful. I feel like I’m imposing on the poor imprisoned audience, forcing them to sit in painful tedium as they are forced to listen to my scribbled nonsense. It’s just unbearable at times. I beg my daughter and my wife to let me not attend performances, but they insist that it would appear as if I’m disappointed with the performers. Ron, it’s best I just write music and hear about the performances later. I’ve actually boycotted several performances and recording sessions altogether. I had a 20 minute piece premiered in N.Y. in 2000 and I begged the talented artists not to perform it, but they wouldn’t listen—and they had commissioned the piece so I was helpless to prevent them from playing it—but that was in the last millennium, and this millennium I’m trying to be less disturbed by public performance. It’s an emotional struggle. It doesn’t matter if the performers realize my music beautifully or that the audience applauds. It’s just that I feel sick during performances. For the Shakespeare Concerts I take one bow, at the end of concerts, and everyone is smiling and happy—performers, audience—and I’m just trying to look like I’m not distressed. The march to the stage is like I’m climbing the stairs to the guillotine.
“Yes, no university job and no teaching job, but for the isolated private students that generally last a short and painful—to them—time, since 1978. That’s another long story, including my departure from academia, and the reasons for that. Suffice to say, I have been very lucky to have found support for my music from patrons and foundations that have not begrudged me my eccentric disinclination from normal social intercourse.”
Q: And is it really an audience of one that you write for, as one comment in your program notes seemed to imply, or do you actually want the exposure for your music that these Albany recordings, and the series with Parma, and The Shakespeare Concerts, offer? How does it feel now that you are presenting to a broader audience, and what has the response been like?
A: I have to say, I don’t think about a living audience when I compose. When I think about an audience, in the abstract, I shift between pleasing the connoisseur, the critic, the composers of the future, the performers….Mostly, at least so I’m thinking today, I want to be able to have a conversation with Mozart, a musical conversation.
Q: Have your songs and chamber music been taken up by performers outside of the Concerts? If yes, how do you feel about the songs having a performance life of their own?
A: Yes, but I am not yet very comfortable with performers attempting my music without being a part of my concert series, because there are some initial difficulties in understanding how my music requires a certain amount of preparation intellectually: preparation that most musicians are not familiar with. It is quite interesting to watch how every series performer goes through the same passage of comprehension. First, as the music appears in standard notation, and is tonal, the singer doesn’t prepare to be challenged. Then, the first rehearsal and they are bewildered. The harmonic suspensions, the ambiguity of the bar line—it’s there, but it isn’t, like Brahms—the polyrhythms. The performer is at sea. Eventually, the third part: Harmonies, rhythms, and counterpoint become understood and the performer wonders what the impediment was that so threw him in the previous step.
“It normally takes one concert season before a performer becomes capable of performing my music musically. I’ve gone to performances of my music by strangers, and the results can be pretty dreadful. It’s just familiarity, but I think that can change as artists grow to learn the language. Still, there have been some less than satisfactory performances outside my bailiwick. I look forward to the day when I can step aside. The transition is just beginning now. I am suspending my disbelief for some upcoming performances outside my sphere of influence, keeping my fingers crossed in the hope that it isn’t premature to let the music out on its own, that the music can thrive during
isn’t the term. I am hopeful that my music will leave the nest for good.”
Meanwhile, I had been exploring the parallels between his music and the literary works, and struggling with Summer’s occasionally inconsistent explanation of them in his extended notes. This came to a head in this exchange:
Q: I have also read the online version of
Pierre Menard Author of the Quixote
, and listened again to the first movement of your quartet. If I had not read your notes, I would have assumed the analogy of the novel out-of-time is found in what I would have taken to be development of the inverted Mozart quotation in a modern style that is decidedly not 18th century.
A: Certainly, that is one of the solutions and one which I intended; but is not the only solution to that particular problem.
Q: But instead I read that the theme of the novel is reflected in some way in the dialog between the violins and viola together (Cervantes), and the cello (Menard’s imitation). Then later, you state that what I expected is indeed basically what you do, after which you begin adding elements of movements to come.
A: Again: that is one of the solutions and one which I intended; but is not the only solution.
Q: Perhaps I am being too literal in all this. But then, I am not sure what to believe of what you tell me, first because of your daughter’s dismissive comment regarding the Imaginary Program Notes—not to mention their title—and because I read things there that contradict what you have said in our conversation. For instance, you said in your notes that a knowledge of Borges’s
is essential, along with a knowledge of the Mozart
and the Beethoven C♯-Minor, but have written to me that you don’t think a knowledge of any of this is necessary. And this on a fairly objective sort of question; am I trying to find rationality in a purposefully irrational world that you have created?
A: No, definitely not! I understand you are referring to this passage in the notes:
Without a complete reading of
, parts one and two, the quartet may not be capable of meaningful communication. Of course, this leads to other difficulties. Besides
one should be intimately familiar with the C♯-Minor quartet of Beethoven, and the
of Mozart. These should have been heard and enjoyed immensely before listening to my offering. And, true, to listen to the C♯-Minor outside the framework of the other late Beethoven quartets would be not to understand the C♯-Minor properly. It’s a slippery slope now. I’m beginning to believe that the only persons who should listen to
The Garden of Forking Paths
are Borges, Mozart, and Beethoven—and Mozart and Beethoven would still need to read
; not to mention, I don’t think Beethoven would have the slightest interest in my music. Mozart might, especially for the opening 20 bars where I put a spin on the introduction of his
“But, as the character of my wife writes: ”
I have been reading, when I’ve had a moment, your program notes to an imaginary string quartet, and I don’t know whether they really say what you mean them to say…you actually want almost everyone to listen to your music without referential meanings. However, you do want several people whose literary experience is superior to yours to listen and appreciate the effort you put into it. All others should actually think you are just writing pretty music.
Summer added, “Ron, I’m not lying nor being disingenuous. My thoughts about the quartet change as I have them. That’s also why I wrote, ‘This solution, of which I am immensely proud, but which I have abandoned, allowed me to write contradictory, but true, statements about my string quartet and about my music in general.’ I hope that the world I created is not ‘purposefully irrational,’ as you remark as a possibility, nor even accidentally ‘irrational.’ I hope there is a rationality that compels the listener from one moment to the next. I also hope that there is a depth to the structures that compels the listener to listen repeatedly.
“I listen to Beethoven’s C♯-Minor string quartet about 50 times a year. I am eternally fascinated by it. Beethoven’s C♯-Minor is endlessly entertaining and revelatory and mysterious. I continue to probe its meaning year after year, iteration after iteration. I aspire to create music which entertains not once or twice, but eternally. That’s why I attempt, in everything I write, to create mysteries that can be solved, which then reveal further soluble mysteries. In
The Beginning of Infinity
by David Deutsch, the author explains that the aesthetic beauty of scientific inquiry includes the fundamental reality that each problem solved reveals further problems. This isn’t a bad thing. All problems are soluble, but we’ll never be through with problems. For me, great music mirrors that philosophy: Every great piece of music allows us listeners to ‘solve problems,’ which lead to more problems to solve. This eternal engagement allows me to listen to the C♯-Minor endlessly. It’s a labyrinth.
“When I supply ‘contradictory’ answers, I’m not trying to deceive or mislead. I find, Ron, that I can hold contradictory opinions simultaneously. When someone asks me, why I compose, I am flooded with numerous responses, all of which seem true to me, and yet several seem to contradict one another. I think that the very act of asking the question throws me into a Schrödinger’s Cat conundrum. Before you ask the question, I am comfortable existing in a cloud of possible locations and spins, but the moment you ask the question, the potentiality wave collapses and there is a single answer—though the answer always leaves another answer unanswerable—which I tell. Then that answer is true. It’s not any different, I imagine, than anyone else, in many cases. Some answers don’t change though. In fact, most don’t.”
Still, there was much that seems illusory in the stories Summer told, and explanations that he gave, as if he was creating Borgesian alternate worlds as we corresponded. In one such, he described how he performed and recorded the premiere of
The Garden of Forking Paths
in a friend’s art gallery, named after one of Borges’s imaginary authors, on the day of its closing, so that it occurred in a place that soon would not be.
Q: Then I am curious about the thread that seems to run through your work of imaginary authors and—with the closing of the Pierre Menard Gallery—imaginary places. Even Shakespeare is an imaginary author, in that he, in your conviction, is really Edward DeVere. You would almost have imaginary music, if your wife had not insisted that you at least write it out. Is there a theme here?
A: Yes, indeed. The question of ipseity runs throughout my life and my work. Ipseity in regard to Shakespeare and ipseity in regard to myself. The question of who I am and whether I exist outside me. Thus, the question of whether I need actually write out the music I think. To what end? And is such self-observance real and/or moral. That also is at the core of the stories of Borges I selected.
The Library of Babel
hypothesizes—in some regard—that the I-that-I-am can be completely described through mechanical processes on sheets of paper. My Boccaccio operas move towards the central query: What defines who I am, what an
is. Thus the central opera, titled
(Also Known As) which is the question of ipseity as I ponder it.
poses the question repeatedly, in his conversation with Polonius, and of course the question which is really just the first part of a deeper question. ‘To be or not to be,’ that is a question predicated on the unasked question what is ‘to be,’ and is there a difference between being and not being, and assuming so, then what is it? So, and this returns to the question of the audience:
I write music in my studio.
I wonder, what if no one hears it?
My wife suggests this is silly, as my music is worth hearing, and so will be heard eventually.
I say, then it doesn’t matter if my music is heard while I am alive?
I answer myself: No, it doesn’t matter if my music is heard while I live.
Then, I ask myself, if I am dead, and someone hears my music, then what does that mean to me, a living entity?
I suppose: nothing.
Yet I continue to compose, so nothing must be something, to me.
“I am only attempting here to briefly summarize some thoughts which I explicate better, in my opinion, in my Boccaccio librettos and my music in general. But, Ron, I don’t think that my solipsistic
is necessarily germane to the enjoyment of my music. It’s just one of those levels beneath the surface, though not an unimportant level, not a digression…”
The third release, on Navona’s Parma label, has not yet counted in this digest of our conversation. With it we return to a less rarified atmosphere. Titled
, it includes a different version of the second movement from
The Garden of Forking Paths
, as well as a number of Shakespeare settings. It is the first in a projected series documenting the varieties of works offered in Summer’s Shakespeare Concerts. Early on he shared the plans for the series:
is the first offering in Navona’s
The Shakespeare Concerts Series
of selections from Joseph Summer’s
The Oxford Songs, Shakespeare’s Memory
includes previously unreleased recordings from the first year of the series—2002 in Prague—to the most recent—2011 in Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts. Future
The Shakespeare Concerts Series
releases will be centered on subject matter. The second release,
The Fair Ophelia
, features diverse settings of Ophelia’s mad scene from Shakespeare’s
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
by Berlioz, Brahms, Schumann, Saint-Saëns, Strauss, Cage, and Summer.”
Q: I have meant to ask you about the wide variety of repertoire performed at The Shakespeare Concerts. The list of works on the Concerts website is extensive, and quite a number bear no obvious connection to Shakespeare (or DeVere, or Elizabethan literature, etc.). Would you mind commenting on the philosophy behind the choices?
A: Yes, of course, but I’ve remarked before that anything of merit written after Shakespeare can be related to Shakespeare fairly easily. Sometimes it’s obvious, but sometimes not. You might wonder why I’m considering the slow movement from Beethoven’s op. 18/1, for example, but that was written as a reflection on Juliet’s funeral according to contemporary sources, which may also explain why it is too long in context with the rest of the string quartet.
“So, there are many pieces that are on the [online] list. I just started at the top, ignored the obvious actual Shakespeare text settings, and the first questionable entry would be Benjamin Britten’s
op. 31.This is a part of our series because its subtitle “Go play, boy, play” is from the Shakespeare play,
A Winter’s Tale
. When presenting a piece from a set which includes a Shakespeare setting, such as Brahms’s
for women’s chorus, harp, and horns, I often program the entire work, even though the other settings will not have a Shakespeare connection. Some included works—though few—have no connection other than specific concert related practicalities.
Auf Dem Strom
was simply a piece that was perfectly matched to several other horn, piano, and voice pieces on a particular concert.”
Q: And finally, what of additional plans for the future?
A: I have what I am calling a
where I’m depositing mastered recordings of Shakespeare Series music. The bank will allow me flexibility for preparing theme discs. In April, The Shakespeare Concerts is performing and recording an hour and a half of music by Boyce, Chilcott, Morley, Arne—these four on period instruments—Dominick Argento, Peter Warlock, and four works by myself, including the
If Music Be The Food of Love
for four hunting horns and string orchestra. As well, my pianist is recording Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata and he, with a brilliant violinist, will record Korngold’s
Much Ado About Nothing
. Also, a tenor and a pianist performing my music in the Midwest will be recording my four
soliloquies and Tippett’s
Three Ariel Songs
. The bank already has several pieces I’m holding for the future CDs, and by May 2013 I will have at least two to three hours more of material for the next discs. And I have been approved for a production of
in 2014, and am now finishing the music to this two-act chamber opera with a libretto by my daughter Eve (words by Shakespeare, of course). The production is funded and will include a recording. It will be conducted by Ian Watson and stage directed by Eve Summer. This may be the first father-daughter opera collaboration in a long time. If Parma is working out, then we will continue to release the discs through them.
(And that is a possible path in the temporal labyrinth that I surely hope becomes our reality. Finely crafted, richly inventive, and eccentric in the best sense of the word, this is music that demands a hearing.)
Dance of the Mechanics;
9. Sonnet 130.
7. Sonnet 8;
8. Sonnet 110;
9. Sonnet 18;
When That I Was and A Little Tiny Boy.
, Book 3:
If By Your Art;
2. Sonnet 104;
Leda and the Swan;
11. Sonnet 128
Eve Gigliotti (sop);
Heather Curley (sop);
Kellie Van Horn (mez);
Alan Schneider (ten);
Thomas O’Toole (bar);
Anna Reinerman (hp);
Sarah Brady (fl);
John McGinn, (pn);
Krista Buckland Reisner (vn);
Max Zeugner (db);
QX String Quartet
ALBANY 881 (70:31)
The Garden of Forking Paths
Kalmia String Quartet
ALBANY 1340 (56:29)
7. Sonnet 135;
On the Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough;
He Shall with Speed to England.
If By Your Art;
Leda and the Swan;
Full Fathom Five.
2. Sonnets 97 and 98;
With Mirth in Funeral and with Dirge in Marriage;
9. Sonnet 116;
10. Sonnet 3;
The Garden of Forking Paths:
The Earl of Oxfords Marche
Andrea Chenoweth (sop);
Maria Ferrante (sop);
Kellie Van Horn (mez);
Justin Vickers (ten);
Chad Sloan (bar);
Lydie Hartelova (hp);
Miroslav Sekera (pn); Ian Watson (
Kalmia String Quartet
NAVONA 5899 (61:32)
These three CDs—out of five that Joseph Summer has released so far—give a fair representation of the Massachusetts-based composer’s inspirations and a reasonable sample of his shorter works. Sadly missing, I feel sure that he would add, are his operas, especially
, his as yet unperformed “musical pride and joy,” an ongoing series of operatic treatments of Boccaccio’s
. In the releases under consideration, the focus is on vocal settings of Shakespeare’s sonnets and dramatic writing, and on a Bard-inspired chamber work. There is also a string quartet of grand proportions demonstrating Summer’s fascination with the writings of celebrated Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, as well as settings of verse by Milton and Yeats. The shorter works are grouped into collections; currently eight books—the last enigmatically numbered S
The Oxford Songs
after Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Summer, a keen Oxfordian, argues that DeVere likely wrote the Shakespeare canon.
In fact, every Summer composition of which I know is inspired by a literary work. He is obviously taken with Shakespeare; in addition to the
collections, he has written two operas, a
and a nearly complete
. All of the music offered here shares the characteristics of tonal accessibly, sophistication, and a depth of imagination and feeling that is immensely engaging. It is intellectual—and the composer occasionally explains in his notes the scholarly underpinning of the musical choices he has made—but the conceptualization never overshadows the deep emotional response to the text, and usually serves it brilliantly.
Indeed, much of Summer’s music has an intimate connection to his family, whatever the source or dexterity of the means the composer employs. The Albany release
Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day
contains, for instance, a setting of Miranda’s “If By Your Art,” in which she begs her father to quell the tempest in Shakespeare’s play of that name. It was inspired by an incident involving Summer’s own daughter. There are six of his deeply felt Shakespeare sonnet settings—three with particularly affecting harp accompaniment—with program notes to explain the very personal connections. There is, as well, a sensuous setting of Yeat’s
Leda and the Swan
—an arrangement of one of the earliest of his
, and one of several with a non-Shakespearian text—plus a finale drawn upon Feste’s parting speech in
. My favorite, however, is the
Dance of the Mechanics
, a suite for string quintet inspired by the characters of
Love’s Labour’s Lost
; an absolute delight and a technical
tour de force.
In fact, while Summer is first and foremost a vocal composer, his writing for strings is equally impressive, both in this suite and in the amazing String Quartet in C Major,
The Garden of Forking Paths
. The title refers to Jorge Luis Borges’s eponymous short story, a dazzling exploration of time and causality cloaked in a gripping spy story. The piece can be thoroughly enjoyed as superbly crafted absolute music, but knowing the great Argentinian’s writings on timelines and on the labyrinthine temporal possibilities created by life’s choices adds depth to one’s appreciation of the musical manifestation. The nearly hour-long quartet, cast in five movements in three sets, takes its inspiration and movement names from five Borges stories:
Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote; Shakespeare’s Memory; Laudatores Temporis Acti; An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain
The Library of Babel
. Summer describes in brief program notes how the music—intellectually riveting and often quite beautiful—represents each story’s central theme. He also includes a 50-page epistolary discourse on the works that more fully reflects on the fantasy of Borges’s writing and the great writer’s theories of time and causality. It is a remarkable, if occasionally bewildering, read. In this it is like his music, which is not likely to be fully assimilated upon first acquaintance, despite the accessibility of the language. Both music and commentary, however, richly reward greater familiarity.
Finally, there is the newest release, from Navona, the classical label of audio production house Parma Recordings. This is the premiere release in what is planned to be a series devoted to documenting
The Shakespeare Concerts
. With repertoire much like the Albany recital, this first CD showcases Summer’s works. Future releases will also draw upon Shakespeare-inspired compositions by other composers like Brahms, Schumann, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, and Strauss, which Summer has presented in his themed concerts. The second disc, already in preparation, is titled
The Fair Ophelia
. (For those interested, Summer’s concerts website,
, lists the past repertoire.) Named
, this premiere disc of the series offers scenes from
, including a particularly haunting performance of “If By Your Art” from 2002, and a setting of Ariel’s “Full Fathom Five” and preceding dialog, which most disquietingly conjures images of Alonso’s watery grave. There are four sonnet settings accompanied by string quartet, including a particularly personal response to sonnets 97 and 98 in combination. There is a riper-yet take on Yeats’s poem on godly seduction, and an alternative performance of the second movement from Summer’s string quartet, preceded by the William Byrd march that serves as one of its themes. In all, this disc is a most auspicious start to what promises to be a fascinating collection.
As for the performances themselves: The vocalists are generally fine; the young singers, all coached thoroughly by the composer, are intensely engaged with the technically challenging works. Generally the women are more pleasing vocally than the men, but all are capable. The two string quartets are impressive, as are all of the instrumental soloists. Engineering is well done on all three discs, though I prefer the slightly drier, more open acoustic of the Albany transfers. The Parma sound is closer and more reverberant, but not objectionably so. The Parma disc offers additional content when opened in a computer, including notes, scores for each work, photos, and even computer wallpaper and ringtones.
This just leaves the general assessment of Joseph Summer and his oeuvre for the end. Summer, who was born in 1956, has been writing since a child, but little of his music has been recorded until recently. Summer discusses the why of this a bit in the accompanying interview. It was clearly not for lack of artistic merit. Again in the interview, I comment—to the composer’s apparent delight—on his distinctive musical voice. The influences he acknowledges come from all periods and a variety of styles, and are thoughtfully used and thoroughly integrated into his own. This is music of maturity, intellectual brilliance, and imagination, well crafted and often spectacularly expressive. It was new to me five months ago when I began listening to it and perusing the scores that the composer sent me. I have found that I never tire of hearing it, and that it satisfies both heart and head in a way that only the finest music does. I’ll go so far as to say, mindful that one must never declare “genius” too easily, that the more I experience Joseph Summer’s art, the more I am inclined to apply the term. Highly recommended.
Ronald E. Grames