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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
A Rhapsody for Voice and Orchestra
I adapted the text for The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock from the famous poem by T.S. Eliot and composed it especially for the voice of soprano Danielle Talamantes. The work embodies a modern musical language that makes use of eclecticism while also suggesting the familiar symphonic American vernacular.
The text, first published in 1915, was an entirely new kind of poetry that thrust Eliot onto the modernist stage. I think author Karen Swallow Prior hit the nail on the head in her essay, "When T. S. Eliot Invented the Hipster" (The Atlantic, January 4, 2015):
The original cuffed-trouser urbanite on the hunt for authenticity—and undercutting it with his own self-consciousness—was J. Alfred Prufrock...An embodiment of turn-of-the-century angst wrought by a world sucked dry by skepticism, cynicism, and industrialism, Prufrock bears striking similarities to a subculture of mostly white, urban, detached-yet-sensitive young adults at the cusp of our own century. One might say Eliot invented the hipster…
Whatever hipsters are, they cannot be separated from the cultural mood that birthed them or their natural habitat: the city. Neither hipsters nor Prufrock would exist without the modern urban setting that bred their sensibilities. It is in the city that the pulse of a civilization is taken. The cityscape in Eliot’s poem, with its skyline "like a patient etherized upon a table," is, in fact, as famous as Prufrock, whose emotionally and spiritually unconsummated desire creates the central tension of the poem.
To underscore the tension of Prufrock's unconsummated desire, I used a hybrid voice that synthesizes classical and vernacular styles. Each theme and motif uses the melodic and rhythmic contours of Eliot’s stream of consciousness narrative to dictate mood and melodic character. Notable among them is the "Prufrock Motif" that heralds the poem’s famous opening line, "Let us go then, you and I." These rich thematic textures are then woven into a coherent aural tapestry.
Before the opening of the poem, Eliot places a six-line epigraph from Dante’s Inferno in which the condemned soul of Guido da Montefeltro agrees to confess what he knows to Dante, mistakenly assuming it would be impossible for Dante to betray his confession to the world of the living. Sung in the original Italian, the epigraph is musically rendered as a sarabande, a slow, stately dance in triple meter. It is a prelude to the dramatic monologue that follows in which Prufrock reveals with equal candor the burdens of his unmet desire.
I made use of extended techniques and semi-aleatoric passages to help amplify the emotional content. As Prufrock muses upon "the mermaids singing, each to each," for example, I combined artificial harmonic glissandi in the cello part—which produces the sound of a flock of seagulls—with an ocean drum, played ad lib, and tubular bells. Woodwinds, harp, and strings support the ensemble. The result is a remarkable simulation of the sounds of the seashore: ocean waves swell and crash to the cawing of seagulls as the mournful toll of a bell buoy heralds the open sea and Prufrock concludes, "I do not think that they will sing to me."
The ending is calibrated to Danielle’s vocal genius. Brass, percussion, and celesta enter, intensifying the rich orchestral palette. The high note is sustained over seven measures of a dance-like scherzo in 7/8 meter as singer and orchestra build to a magnificent forte fortissimo climax. With the vocal line soaring above the din, the "Prufrock Motif" returns to mark the closing line, "Till human voices wake us, and we drown."
YEAR OF COMPOSITION
Full Score (High Voice Solo & Orchestra)
Vocal Score (High Voice Solo & Piano)
Set of Parts
American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP)
PURCHASE SCORE & PARTS
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