Note to reader from Pamela Jones:
For some time now, many people have urged me to write down my memories of Robert and his music. Since I attended many rehearsals and premières of his works, and was present as he was composing them, I have first-hand knowledge of the compositions. The Memoir contains my personal memories, and information gleaned from interviews I did with Robert in 2010-2011.i However, as is the case with most memoirs, I have approached the subject in a personal and subjective way. My aim is to give readers a deeper understanding of the composer’s character, and to inspire them to program or listen to his music. The Memoir is divided into two parts, Part One: Background Information, and Part Two: The Music.
Part One: Background Information
Part Two: The Music
5) Evolution of a Musical Style
6) Early Works
7) Sacred Music
8) Meditation Pieces
9) Chamber Music: Dances of the Eternal Dreamtime
11) Chamber Symphony
12) Choral Symphony: La terra promessa
13) Death of composer...my final thoughts
Robert Frederick Jones was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (U.S.A.) on 01 January, 1947 (He was the city’s first baby of the year). He was the son of Vernice Behnke, whose ancestors were from Germany, and Robert Harvey Jones, whose ancestors were from Wales. His father, however, grew tired of shoveling snow and soon accepted a job in Phoenix. So Robert grew up surrounded by the vast deserts of Arizona; their intense stillness, colours, and moods were to influence him spiritually, emotionally, and musically all his life.
His father’s ancestors had musical talent stretching back at least 5 generations, but they did not earn their living as professional musicians. They tended to have a “serious” job but taught or performed music on the side. One was a farmer and local choir director, another was an innkeeper who also taught violin, and still another was a farmer and church organist. This was also true of Robert’s father: he had a beautiful tenor voice and considered becoming a professional musician, but eventually decided on a less risky career and became an engineer. He did, however, pay his way through university by singing in concerts. Many years later, when his father was dying (Robert was only 14), his last request to his wife was “If the boy wants to become a musician, let him do it.” So with both parents’s blessing, he studied to become a professional musician.
Robert began piano lessons at the age of seven, and a short while later he composed his first work “Twinkle and the Mouse” (Twinkle was his cat). Composing was so natural for him that it was some time before he realised that not all musicians did it. In fact, all his life it came very easily to him. He graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music (B. Mus. 1968), and Brandeis University (M.F.A. 1970, and Ph.D. 1980). His teachers included Daniel Pinkham, Seymour Shifrin, George Perle, Elliott Carter, and Roger Sessions.
Although Robert had all the “proper” degrees and the right teachers, one could say that he was basically an autodidact: he learned far more about music and poetry – his two passions – from his own curiosity than from anything a school could teach. In music he could sight-read anything from a very early age, and he voraciously read scores from every musical period; and in poetry, his favorite poets stretched from Virgil to Dante to the Welsh poet David Jones. He was, therefore, a profoundly self-educated man.
I met Robert on 12 August, 1967 at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. We were introduced by mutual friends. At the time I met him, I was unaware that he had already spotted me earlier that day. I had been in the Tanglewood music store, where there were reams of scores stacked from ground level to many rows of shelves high. Apparently, Robert was kneeling on the ground rifling through a score when I came and stood beside him as I reached for a score on the upper shelf. He looked to his left and saw what he thought was a spectacular pair of legs (these were the days of mini-skirts). I never noticed Robert at my feet. We were married on 16 August, 1969, and lived together until the composer’s death forty-two years later. We have a son, Andrew David Jones.
After Robert finished his M.F.A., I urged him to look for a job in my home province of Québec. We moved to Montréal in 1972. Robert had a string of jobs replacing teachers on sabbatical leave at McGill University (Montréal) and Mount Allison University (New Brunswick), before obtaining a permanent position at Vanier College in Montréal in 1976.
Robert worked as a teacher of composition, theory, piano, and music history at Vanier College for 33 years. However, he is best remembered by students for his legendary skills as improviser and accompanist: when they were filled with terror at a recital because of some ghastly mistake or memory lapse, Robert, without blinking an eye, would improvise an elegant accompaniment that would save the day.
Vanier College recognised that they had an outstanding composer on their staff and, for over 3 decades, they commissioned and performed work after work of Robert’s. For example, in 2010, when Robert was already quite sick with cancer, he composed his grand Choral Symphony, La terra promessa; when he informed the head of the music department, Nadia Turbide, “The piece is an hour and ten minutes long and it’s going to take at least 120 performers,” she replied, “O.K. Robert, we’ll find them.” This is the greatest gift that any institution can give a composer: the knowledge that he can compose in any style, for any number of people, whatever he wants, and the music will be performed. In April, 2016, four years after his death, Vanier College again honoured him by renaming their choir room, “The Robert Frederick Jones Choir Room.”
When Robert was a young composer studying at the New England Conservatory of Music and Brandeis University, both schools were bastions of a style known as “east coast serialism” – basically atonal 12-tone music. Although he was well able to compose in this style (as can be seen from his early Five German Songs, 1967), his lyricism was still the dominant feature of the music. In addition, he admits that sticking to a “compositional plan” was not something he was comfortable doing. As he said “Essentially I have always been extremely spontaneous, and even in early works with intellectual devices, I never let the plan be in control: if the plan was producing uninteresting results, I ignored it.” After Robert moved to Québec in 1972, he began to think about using other elements in his music: tonal and modal harmonies, octatonic scales and harmonies, and also repetition as a significant style feature. Listeners were so used to composers doing this by the late 20th century – we now label it “post-modernism” – that most people today fully accept this eclecticism; however, in 1978, when Robert first started doing this, he experienced a certain amount of hostility from fellow composers (though never from performers). This never bothered him: once Robert made a musical decision, he trusted his instincts and musical ear completely. He never doubted his artistic choices or turned away from who he was. He summed up his musical philosophy in an interview in 1984 by describing his style as characterized by freedom: “freedom to combine traditional and novel features in the same piece, freedom to vary the stylistic mixture from piece to piece and movement to movement, and freedom to combine the rigidly pre-determined with the freely intuitive.”ii He also added “my desire is to involve the listener’s whole self, not just the ears or the intellect.”
Robert’s catalogue lists some 82 pieces (plus dozens of small-scale works with no opus numbers), so in the following brief description of his music, I have chosen representative examples of various genres, or, I’ll frankly admit, favorite pieces that I love.
Pietà is a 3-movement piano sonata commissioned by the pianist Tom Plaunt with the aid of the Canada Council. It is a piece dedicated to and about me – his wife. In 1984 I was hospitalized due to an ectopic pregnancy, and Robert composed a work in which he portrayed the anguish at watching a loved-one suffer.
I had been studying Renaissance and Baroque dance at the time and, amongst all the early music scores lying about the house, Robert discovered William Tisdall’s “Mrs. Katherin Tregian’s Paven” in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (ca. 1612). Robert has commented “It’s a piece I became obsessed with and would play over and over again.” As a kind of upbeat or prelude to the sonata, he asks the pianist to play Tisdall’s pavane, then seamlessly move into the first movement of the piece. Robert described that the opening idea of his sonata comes loosely out of the same progression as the pavane, and there are dream-like passages that quote the old dance. The development section is based on a 12-tone row that moves from very low to high on the keyboard; but, ever influenced by the old pavane, it is doubled at the perfect fifth or octave throughout, which gives it a tonal/modal underpinning and relates it obliquely to the Renaissance dance.
The second movement is immensely sad: it opens with a gentle but urgent repeating-note motif. Robert recalled: “Pam was in hospital. I had a musical notebook with me. She had a constant i.v. drip ... that I could see.” It is this drip-drip-drip that is represented in the theme. The movement is plaintive and tender and it seems to have come to Robert in one long musical thought. He said “I composed and composed while you were lying there asleep, and whole passages just flowed out of me that couldn’t be argued with.”
The final movement is highly organised motivically – something rare for this composer – but the character of the movement feels anything but organised. It seems more as though the composer has finally let go and, in a roar of rage, is protesting (perhaps to God?) the suffering he sees. At the climax of the movement, a low note “C” is repeated 12 times in a row loudly and angrily: it is dark, it is midnight in Robert’s psyche.
In conclusion, Pietà is a highly personal piece. The title, of course, refers to Michelangelo’s sculpture of the mother of Christ holding her dead son in her arms. The statue is suffused with a serene sadness; but Robert understood, as do many of us from personal experience, that there are two reactions to witnessing a loved-one suffer: one is sadness, the other is rage. Both emotions are very much to be found in Robert’s Pietà.
The Sleeping Lord, my favorite work of Robert’s, is one of those artistic creations that grew out of a lucky confluence of events. In 1983 Vanier College happened to have accepted far more men than women students. So, when it came to choir, they were divided into a regular four-part choir and an all male choir. Robert, who was accompanying both choirs, decided that he wanted to use the low register of the all male choir in a piece. At the same time he had discovered the poetry of the Welsh poet and painter, David Jones (1895-1974), which was steeped in symbolic imagery and mythology. Robert fell in love with his final poem, The Sleeping Lord.
David Jones was a unique and outstanding British poet of the 20th century. W.H. Auden cited his Anathemata as “very probably the finest long poem in English this century.” iii However, it is the poet, Peter Scupham, who links his work to music: “we believe these poems, particularly ‘The Sleeping Lord’, show a sustained music and rhythmic invention finer than anything David Jones had achieved before.” iv I think Scupham has noticed something significant: this poetry cries out for a musical setting.
Although the poem jumps back and forth between centuries, it speaks mainly of the ancient hero of Wales, King Arthur, who shall come again from his secret place to restore the wasted land and its people. There are lots of poems which state that a hero’s character is formed because of the land from which he emerged, but this poem turns that standard thought on its head: it posits quite the opposite - that the land itself is the way it looks because the lord is sleeping there; thus the hills and valleys and rivers are in a truly corporeal sense the sleeping lord:
“are the hills his couch
or is he the couchant hills?
is the configuration of the land
the furrowed body of the lord?”v
The composer sets only four fragments of the poem. Section one describes geological features of the land and asks where the lord is buried:
“And is his bed wide
is his bed deep in the folded strata
is his bed long
where is his bed and
where has he lain him”
Section two describes flowing rivers as his tears. The lord is weeping for the exploited miners toiling in the mines:
“where narrow- skulled caethion” [i.e. slaves]
labour the changing shifts
for the cosmocrats of alien lips” [i.e. the English?]
Section three describes Arthur’s legendary 9-day fight with the supernatural “long-tusked great hog” that was devastating the land.
Section four makes explicit the essence of the poem, the identification of the land as the lord:
“Does the land wait the sleeping lord
or is the wasted land
that very lord who sleeps?”
The composer scores the work for bass solo, male choir, woodwinds, piano, and a battery of percussion requiring five players. He wants the piece to be played in a reverberant acoustic. The very low voices are often static and declamatory while the other instruments shimmer on high. It has always struck me that the dark, low textures produced by the bass soloist and male choir represent the deeply buried sleeping lord, while the shimmering woodwinds and percussion (many of which are reverberant instruments such as the vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, and glockenspiel) are the narrator who soars like an eagle above the land.
In section one it is the low chorus that asks all the questions about where the lord is buried, while in section two, as the lord is weeping for the exploited miners, the soloist – a human voice – enters. This section focuses on water as the tears of the lord. Robert remembered vividly the day he composed the watery sounds: “We were on a summer holiday in the Laurentians, and I would sit beside this stream listening to it and tried to imitate it...some of the burbling stuff in the woodwinds ... and then the percussion comes in with ostinatos that are like recurring ripples in the stream.”
In section three Robert adds a loud, dissonant electronic component – the grunts and roars of the great hog – while the chorus sings aggressive dissonances, then breaks into speaking as it describes “the eighteen twilights and ten midnights” of the great battle between good and evil. At this point the soloist, overcome by the primordial struggle, reverts to a primordial language, ancient Gaelic: “y twrch dirfawr ysgithrog hir” [the long-tusked great hog].
In the final section, just before the identification of the lord as the land, the composer silences all voices and there is a long, soaring instrumental interlude in which the woodwinds and percussion play a plethora of shimmering sextuplets and septuplets and ostinatos winding ever upward rapturously. Only then does he bring back the low, declamatory voices of the choir to draw the final conclusion: “Does the land wait the sleeping lord or is the wasted land that very lord who sleeps?” The piece ends with a dreamy ostinato, for piano and a few percussion, that gradually fades away into nothingness: the lord dreams on in his deep sleep.
The reaction of the audience to this piece was remarkable, one of those moments every composer dreams of: there was a standing ovation with a veritable riot of cheers and clapping. Somehow the Welsh community had heard of the event and had come out en masse for the première. I assumed that it must be the Welsh community that was reacting like this but, when I spoke to members of the audience afterwards, quite a few were immigrants or had recent ancestors who were immigrants from many far-flung countries. They said, with tears in their eyes, that the piece reminded them of their own “auld” country and its legends.
It is not surprising that Robert set this modern Celtic poet to music; he was enormously attracted to Celtic art in general (Celtic crosses, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Celtic poetry both ancient and new etc...). Robert was at heart a Celtic composer, far less interested in the unification devices and central focus of Hellenized western art, and instinctively attracted to the multi-focused, unpredictable delights of Celtic art. Robert has commented “I’m a great believer in not trying to unify things; it’s a Celtic thing. Celtic art has a different organisational principal than other European art, which stems from ancient Greek culture with its goal-oriented thinking. Celtic art doesn’t necessarily have a centre – it can look random and chaotic to someone looking at it from the Greek point of view; but, of course, [in my music] I cheat...I have climaxes and goals, but nevertheless, I like looseness and randomness.”
Since Robert composed a large number of sacred works including hymns, anthems, masses, organ pieces, and sacred chamber works for “special” occasions, the following is only a mere sampling of this rich repertoire.
The Mass for treble voices and organ (1987) is, perhaps, Robert’s most beloved work. It has been performed at Westminster Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral in England, Oxford University, L’Église Notre Dame in Nantes, L’ Église St. Roch in Paris and, of course, all over Canada (how everyone obtains the music is a mystery to me).
The Mass was commissioned by the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. Jean Sult, the director of the Vanier choir, had also formed a small children’s choir on behalf of the School Board. This choir was invited to sing a mass in either Latin or French in a concert series held at the Église St. Jean Baptiste of Montréal. So initially, Robert was commissioned to compose a mass for a small ensemble of children. When faced with the choice of either French or Latin, Robert chose Latin.
He had just begun to think about the work when Jean informed him that the piece would no longer be for 20 children, but for 300! Montréal had been chosen for the next Canadian Children’s Choirs in Concert Festival, and the Mass was going to be the central work. The Mass was now destined for children’s choirs (aged 10 to 17) from all over Canada from the Maritimes to British Columbia. They would all learn the piece separately, and then join together in the spring in Montréal, where the conductor, Wynne Riddell, would blend them into one giant ensemble. The children had approximately one academic year to learn the piece.
I think that the commission for the Mass came at just the right moment for Robert. He had started composing neo-tonal works a few years before or, at least, including neo-tonal elements in his music. He was experimenting, re-learning how to do it after years of atonal compositions. Some of those early neo-tonal works were successful, others less so; but by the time of the Mass, it had gelled, come together with confidence and mastery – he was ready for the challenge. The Mass for treble voices and organ was the perfect vehicle for that stage of his evolution as a composer.
Robert divided his Latin Mass into the traditional five movements: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus , and Agnus Dei. He first composed the movements with shorter texts (Kyrie, Agnus Dei, and then the Sanctus); when faced with the movements with longer texts (Gloria and Credo), he had to decide whether or not to cut words to make it easier for the kids: he decided there would be no cuts. He simply trusted the kids would rise to the challenge. However, he did reach out to them melodically: the entire Mass has lyrical shiver-up-the-spine melodies cradled in warm modal and tonal harmonies that, once learnt, are easy to remember and interpret. Robert has commented “it’s all pretty gratifying to sing – even the [long] Credo, once the singers bite the bullet...” Robert even took into consideration the preferences of our very musical 9-year old son: when Robert first composed the Sanctus, he wrote something slow and mysterious. He wasn’t satisfied with the result and, one day, while he was doodling at the piano, he added a zippy eighth-note ostinato. As Robert recalled “my nine-year old son came running into the room and said ‘What’s that, it’s great’... so who’s to argue with that.” So many children’s choirs have now mastered the work, that it seems that Robert must have balanced it just right.
Robert had a profound familiarity with the long tradition of Latin masses. He now considered himself to be part of that tradition and, as a nod to the many wonderful masses of the past, he included some quotes or direct influences from some of his favorites. The Gloria has a quote from Machaut, the canonic writing in the voices at the opening of the Credo was inspired by the Credo in Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass, and there are also quotes from Gregorian Chant here and there. He has also said of the ‘flickering’ organ writing at the opening of the Credo: “I had in mind the tongues of fire that rested on the Apostles’ heads at the first Pentecost.”
When the Mass came together in Montréal, I was blissfully unaware of the immense logistics involved in transporting and boarding and scheduling rehearsals for 300 homesick children (now that I organise concerts myself, I can appreciate the monumental task it must have been). Everyone in anyway involved with the project was expected to house at least one child. We were assigned an 11-year old boy from the Maritimes. When I told him he was staying with the composer of the Mass, he looked skeptical and declared “all composers are dead” (I can think of a few critics who would agree with him). Robert and I didn’t know what to expect of the children. We had to trust that choir directors in far flung places had done their jobs well. I suppose that I was more apprehensive than Robert (he never worried much about performances). However, I needn’t have been concerned: the children arrived incredibly well prepared – and as the rehearsals went on, they became surer, less afraid, even proud of themselves; they were so concentrated, so willing and able to do it right, that we were genuinely touched. Yes, the piece is incredibly lovely, but part of the splendour was watching the children blossom with the learning of it. I am so grateful that Robert had the courage not to compose “cute stuff for kids,” but rather a masterpiece they would remember all their lives.vi
In the early 1990’s St. Patrick’s Basilica in Montréal underwent a multi-million dollar renovation, and the administration, justifiably proud of their achievement, commissioned Robert to compose a “Grand Celebratory Work” in honour of the church’s re-opening. Robert scores the work, entitled St. Patrick Sonata (1993), for four trumpets and organ. Since the Basilica has a long Irish history and is dedicated to St. Patrick, the composer chose to base his work on a traditional Irish hymn “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” He presents the melody in multiple guises, sometimes as a chorale, or a merry jig, or a quasi-fugal setting, but ultimately ends with a powerful, triumphant, full-blast fortissimo brass and organ rendition guaranteed to shake the rafters of any Basilica.
St. Patrick Sonata has had a bad-luck history. At the première, Robert was playing the organ and conducting at the same time. There had been only one rehearsal. Everyone got lost – painfully so: at one point, several people were a beat apart. This piece is dance-like and tonal but, at this performance, it was so dissonant that a pianist came up to us afterwards and said “Robert, your music sure has become extremely atonal.”
Later, in 1994, Saint Matthias church put on a concert devoted to Robert’s music. Robert decided to re-attempt St. Patrick Sonata. Everything seemed to be going well at first; then I noticed that there was an awfully long pedal-point happening in the organ, and it was increasingly clashing with the music. The wonderful organist, Michael Capon, stopped mid-movement. Yes, the organ had picked that moment to break down. All of the musicians felt so badly for Robert that they volunteered to meet a week later to record the piece. It went very well but, of course, there was no audience to hear it.
On the first anniversary of Robert’s death, I organised a concert in his honour. With some trepidation, I decided to program St. Patrick Sonata. However, I had learned my lesson: I asked Philip Crozier to play the organ, and Philippe Bourque to conduct. I had come to the conclusion that the real problem with St. Patrick Sonata is that it is virtually impossible to get four professional trumpet players, with their wall-to-wall busy schedules, into the same room at the same time to rehearse more than once with the organ; hence, the need for a conductor. At the memorial concert there was, once again, only one rehearsal, but Philippe Bourque is such a good conductor that he held the piece together, and even brought out its triumphal character. The curse of St. Patrick Sonata had been broken!
In 1993/94 the organist Michael Capon and St. Matthias Church (Westmount) commissioned Robert, with the aid of a grant from the Ministère des Affaires Culturelles du Québec, to compose a series of organ works to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the installation of the church’s Karl Wilhelm Organ. Robert titles the four works Livre d’orgue I and Livre d’orgue II. Each movement is taken from a different feast day of the Christian calendar. True to Robert’s love of desert settings the series opens with an eerie “Prélude: Vox clamans in deserta” in which he depicts the austere, plaintive, lonely cry in the desert of John the Baptist (or any of us at difficult times in our life); other movements include a challenging jig on the hymn “Quem Pastores” and a delightful “Tango” to celebrate the feast day of that spirited desert saint, Mary Magdalene.
In conclusion, the amazing vision and endless invention of Robert’s sacred music are breathtaking: the music is rooted in the composer’s personal faith which gives these works an inspired and genuine quality. However, as will be seen below, the “eternal truths” he believed in, found in so many faiths, do not appear solely in his sacred music but are also present in his symphonies, opera, and chamber music as well.
In the late 1980’s Robert came into contact with eastern meditation. Eastern meditation focuses on the stilling of our overactive, anxiety-ridden minds through the quiet repetition of a mantra, or sacred saying, over and over again until a profound feeling of peacefulness infuses our conscience. Robert, who grew up surrounded by the vast and intensely still deserts of Arizona, was attracted to the practice. He wrote three pieces in meditative style. The first, Sangeet (1990), or Sacred Song, is a two-movement work for voice and piano commissioned by Meg Sheppard and alcides lanza for their concert tours in South America. In Movement One the singer repeats the mantra “amaram hum, madhuram hum” (immortal I am, blissful I am) slowly, smoothly, and calmly while the piano plays isolated notes which Robert describes as “stars appearing in the night sky.” In the second movement the singer repeats a hauntingly beautiful melody over and over again, mantra-like, while the piano paints different orchestral colours at each repetition. The text in Sanskrit is taken from an eighth century B.C. prayer found in the Briadaranyaka Upanishad. It translates: “From the unreal lead me to the real, From darkness lead me to light, From death lead me to immortality.”
In a sense, Sangeet, at least in the second movement, has one foot in the meditative world, and the other still in the active world, for although the singer repeats a quiet mantra, the piano is quite active. In Robert’s second meditative work, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (2000), he takes a musical and spiritual plunge, and composes a startlingly skeletal piece in which very little happens. It is scored for flute/piccolo and two percussionists (with pre-recorded ethnic flutes and indigenous instruments). The musical gestures happen slowly, softly, almost imperceptibly, gradually culminating in a distant solo for tabla.
Robert was an inveterate reader of books on spirituality. One of the books that fascinated him was Belden c. Lane’s The Solace of fierce Landscapes – a profound exploration of desert and mountain spirituality. This book spoke directly to Robert – hence the borrowed title – because of his experiences as a teenager. Robert’s father died in 1961, after five agonising years of debilitating illness, when the boy was only fourteen years old. By all accounts Robert had been an extrovert as a child, but became an introvert near the end of his father’s illness. A short while after the death, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Robert now had to face a second parent that was gravely ill. He told me that this was the time when his hesitation of speech began; he also stopped talking to people about anything the least bit personal. For example, if he was grocery shopping and spotted a neighbour, he would quickly change isles, because he knew she was sure to ask how his mother was doing, and he simply couldn’t speak about it. He was traumatised and, because his mother was so sick, felt that he shouldn’t show it. He got through the difficult years (to the extent that he ever did) because of his overwhelming musical gifts, and because he could drive to the near-by deserts, with their intense nothingness, and find some measure of peace. At the time, he didn’t realize that what he was experiencing was contemplative prayer; all he knew was that it quieted his mental anguish.
Robert’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes is an intensely quiet, inward-looking meditation; it is his reflection on the two life-lines that saved him: music and desert spirituality.
It seems that Robert’s meditation pieces are associated with recovery: they are “gratitude” works. The same pattern is present in his third meditation piece, beati (2001). In his late forties, Robert had just emerged from a crisis on the road of life. Because of a positive choice he made at this time, and with the help of God, he emerged from this crisis renewed in body and spirit. He told me that he felt a great sense of peace in his life, and that he wanted to compose a work that reflected this inner peace. He was also inspired by the late meditative pieces of John Cage. Robert said: “I rediscovered Cage, especially those late works, Number Pieces, in which very little happens. ...what I like is [that] because there are so few notes widely spaced, there is no sense of beat, ...[events] come as a surprise.
Robert decided to compose a Cagian-inspired piece, but with a Christian message.vii beati (for voice, piano, percussion, and electronic extensions) is based on the Sermon on the Mount (the beatitudes), one of the most profound passages of the Christian faith, a passage in which every sentence begins with the words “blessed are...” (beati). Robert sets each appearance of the word “beati” – Christ telling us who are the blessèd of this world – to two repetitious, slowly evolving Gregorian chants (sometimes in Latin, sometimes in Spanish).
The two chants are very similar: they each circle around a small nuclear motif that is limited in range. No note or phrase should be emphasized; instead, the singer should approach the phrases as if she is standing in a reverberant space, chanting quietly to herself, with no audience present. Robert has stated: “The singer chants slowly and quietly, sending the syllables into space, savouring the individual vowels and consonant sounds ....”
These chants are punctuated at a few key points by a quiet, tender refrain set in Spanish. The text for this refrain is the recordite, the words spoken by the good thief to Christ as they are dying on the cross: “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Robert knew that in some Orthodox services the beati and the recordite are linked, and he chose to do the same in his work. The voice and piano parts are independent during the beatitudes, but correlate during the recordite. Here Robert writes melody and accompaniment – as if the good thief needs support in his plea. However, even though the refrain is melodious, the phrases should still be introspective in character.
The electronic component is also influenced by Cage. Robert said “it consists of eight layers recorded separately, then mixed together” though, regardless of these complex procedures, Robert uses the electronics sparingly. He tends to insert single, long-held notes with no sense of beat or phrasing or predictability; just isolated pianissimo sounds that often hover around the notes of the chants, and that enhance the other-worldliness of the piece.
In conclusion, Robert’s musical meditations are intended to still the mind; therefore, it is important that the musicians should not see themselves as “soloists,” but rather should be neutral vessels through which the hushed repetitions and silences create a space of serenity.
I fondly remember 2006 as a very happy time for our family. Andrew and Shannon (our son and future daughter-in-law) were getting married, and we were all happily scurrying about planning a wedding. Robert dedicated his new work, Dances of the Eternal Dreamtime, to the young couple as a wedding present.
The work was commissioned by the Quintette Mont-Royal, which included a flute, clarinet, double bass, marimba and percussion. Shawn Mativetsky, one of the group’s percussionists, was a keen player of the tabla, and Robert decided to give prominence to this instrument.
At the time, Robert was reading the creation myths of many cultures, and he was drawn to the Australian Indigenous Peoples’ version. According to some tribes, the Dreamtime is that sacred, primordial period when our distant spirit-ancestors created the world and everything in it. They believe that, although the Dreamtime had its beginnings at the world’s birth, it has never ceased to be because the creative spirit, once set in motion, never stops. Thus we live in the Eternal Dreamtime. Some tribes also believe that the spirits danced our world into being; therefore, they celebrate the Eternal Dreamtime – the sacred past and the sacred present – with dance.viii So, naturally, Robert decided that his Dreamtime would consist of dance music.
At the time, I was teaching at Ballet Divertimento, a professional dance school in Montréal. I don’t remember whether it was Robert or I who first came up with the idea of including dancers, but I know we discussed it at an early stage of planning the work. I approached Susan Alexander, the director of the school, to suggest that some dancers take part. I had no idea what her reaction would be, but she instantly thought it was a wonderful suggestion.
The work is in three movements. Movement One (unlike the other two movements) does not have a strong, easily recognisable beat-pattern and melody for the dancers. After an initial fanfare to invite the audience to the drama, it depicts the world at its birth: form coming out of chaos. Robert said “it presents a quiet, cosmic landscape in which brief musical fragments float aimlessly around and gradually coalesce into form ... like one of those mobiles blowing in the wind ... and the spectator walks around seeing the same thing from different angles.” Because of this movement’s amorphous character, Robert envisaged a non-synchronised choreography (Cunningham/Cage-like) for it. I, on the other hand, find the music so full of images that I could envisage a more “synchronised” choreography which would depict, as the music does, form coming out of chaos.
Movement Two delights us with a mildly sensual and charming waltz representing the first man and first woman in a tender, but slightly awkward, ritual of courtship. Everyone has their own idea of what or who influenced this movement. It has the kind of hummable tune and comfortable harmonies that has everyone saying “Oh, yes, that’s just like ---.” Robert thought it had a Nino Rota (Fellini’s composer) quality, while a friend said it was Piazzolla-like. Perhaps they are both right and both wrong. To me, however, it is pure Robert: it reminds me of his awkward, but endearingly tender, courtship of me. Who knows, perhaps that’s one of the work’s roots.
The entire piece was destined to be choreographed but, due to limited funds, Ballet Divertimento could only afford to pay for one choreographed movement. Susan Alexander hired Rayco Cano-Cortés, a Spanish choreographer who had danced with Nacho Duato’s company in Spain. It was a stroke of luck that he happened to be in Montréal: his wife had a contract with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, and he had accompanied her.
Cano-Cortés chose the second movement. Robert remembered when he first played the work for the choreographer: “When he heard [the piece], he said the second movement jumped out at him; he loved it... said it was flirtatious and nostalgic...so ‘right’ for seventeen-year olds.” He choreographed on five girls and one boy. The dance shows a youthful, tender, but somewhat humorous awakening of sexual desire in each of the young dancers.ix Robert commented “When Rayco showed it to me, he was somewhat apprehensive [of my reaction], but I loved every step of it. I was totally delighted; so was Pam.”
Robert, unlike me, was not used to how hard dancers work. He was amazed at the many weeks they practised the choreography. I thought the dancers hit just the right note: they were relaxed, funny, technically sound, and flirted with each other so convincingly. It was wonderful.
Movement Three represents the ritual celebration of creation. Shawn Mativetsky had done a presentation at Vanier College in which he played a forty-minute tabla improvisation, while a second musician played a simple tune over and over again on an Indian harmonium. Robert was very taken with the idea. He decided he wanted to highlight the tabla in the third movement.
After an energetic introduction (spirits flying about?), Robert presents a quiet four-bar tune that has a swaying pulse, with a hint of the East in it. The tune, which is repetitive in itself, repeats constantly throughout the movement. Robert chose to compose an octatonic melody (easy for this to sound slightly Eastern), which he said “opened up modal and harmonic possibilities that I might not have thought of.” He initially just changes instrumentation in the first few repetitions, but soon begins to play with the tune: we hear imitation, inversion, sub-divisions of meter, stretto, and simultaneous regular and inverted forms. However, no matter what he is doing – loud, soft, inversion, imitation – Robert keeps the swaying pulse throughout. It is, after all, a movement for dancers.
The tabla player is expected to improvise to this repeating melody.x When Shawn had done his concert at Vanier, he had improvised in Teentaal, perhaps the most famous rhythmic pattern in North Indian music. Robert decided to use the same taal (though slightly modified) because it is amazingly symmetrical and, as he said, “it doesn’t jar with western concepts of phrase structure.” The composer includes a “dummy” part in the score, here and there, to give the player an idea of what he wants; however, many bars are simply left blank – it’s up to the tablist to fill them in. There is one possible exception: at bar 55 and bar 99, Robert includes a famous, traditional Tukra in triplets. It’s optional at bar 55 but, at bar 99, where other instrumentalists go into triplets, Robert wanted the tablist to play the triplet solo, or something very like it.
Robert essentially wants an arch form: simple rhythms at the beginning, which gradually increase in complexity and tension, then wind-back down to simplicity near the end, a form that many an experienced tabla player might automatically do.
The constant repetition of tune and pulse is hypnotic but, by that, I don’t necessarily mean soft or even meditative: rather, we are in a dream-like haze through which we view the ancients creating the world, sometimes laid-back and dreamy, at other times bursting with creative energy – but always, always, in a swaying motion.
After the melody and improvisation fade away, Robert adds a tiny coda, a swift blink of the eye, in which the music rushes into the air, followed by a one-beat thump. This ending has inspired my choreographer friends: one believes it is the ancestors, in a puff of smoke, disappearing into the cosmos; another thinks it is the creation of the first child who emerges, in a rush of air, onto the earth. Whichever way you want to interpret it, it is quixotic.
I have one last thought on Dances of the Eternal Dreamtime. Although I have outlined what seems to have inspired the piece – tabla, dancers, creation myths – I have a feeling that the work is really about Andrew and Shannon’s marriage: the “kids” were embarking on a momentous journey – the dance of life – and both Robert and I were filled with joy and awe.
In 2002 the Montreal soprano, Lucie Mayer, commissioned Robert to create a one-act, one-woman opera for her. Mayer has a larger than life personality and Robert thought that the character of Miss Havisham would be a good vehicle for her.
Miss Havisham is a strange and troubled woman found in the Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations. When she was a young woman she was jilted on her wedding day, and the principal aim of the rest of her life is to wreak vengeance on men. With this in mind she adopts a beautiful child named Estella, and often invites a young boy named Pip to come and play with her. She teaches the children to play cards and to dance. What she hopes is that when the children grow up Pip will fall in love with Estella and she will break his heart.
The entire twenty-four-minute opera takes place after an horrific incident in which Miss Havisham has accidentally set herself on fire. She is now mortally wounded, lying on a couch, thinking back on her life: she remembers the day she was jilted, how beautiful Estella is, the children playing and dancing, and the fire that set her ablaze; but most of all she remembers all the cruel things she did and said. Now, as she lies dying, she truly regrets what she has done. She keeps repeating “What have I done, what have I done?” And in the final moments of her life she asks for forgiveness. In fact, the final word of the opera is “forgive.”
In the many films made out of the novel, usually Miss Havisham dies as bitter as she lived; but Dickens, on the other hand, as is his way with characters for whom he has some sympathy, gives her reconciliation and a measure of peace at the end. It is this element of transformation that spoke to Robert. He takes the scene quite literally out of the novel, and much of the dialogue as well. There are no set arias but rather in a stream of conscience patter - the babbling of a dying woman - she expresses a range of emotions from bitterness to anger to fear to regret. Therefore the singer, who is alone on the stage, must also be a good actress.
Robert composed his original version for soprano and chamber group, but he also composed a version accompanied by full orchestra, and another for singer and piano. The opera opens with a repeating triplet motif in the orchestra that represents the passage of time. In the first and last scenes, which are in real time, she is on her deathbed, but in between she gets up and acts out each scene with the invisible people she is recalling. In the scene where she teaches the children to play cards and dance, Robert composed a curious minuet, as he said “an old dance to represent the past.” It starts out sounding innocent but is soon corrupted by subversive whole-tone elements – just as Miss Havisham’s life becomes corrupted. The conflagration scene is purely instrumental. Robert has commented “I bring back music already associated with Miss Havisham’s violent moods (lots of octatonic scales and chords and diminished 7ths) as the fire burning down the house - an analogy between the physical destructiveness of the fire and her personal destructiveness.”
In the final scene the orchestra falls silent. Miss Havisham, with failing breath, sings an unaccompanied deathbed monologue, a chromatically wondering melody, full of silences, that winds its way back to the opening key – whereupon the orchestra re-enters with the “passage-of-time” motif that began the opera. Miss Havisham’s time on this earth has passed.
When I look back on all the works Robert premiered over the years, I must admit that many were a bit of a slog to put on, but there were a few that came together so easily it feels as if they were destined. In April of 2002, I was teaching an “Opera Literature” course at the Knowlton branch of Bishop’s University. Knowlton is a very picturesque town in the Eastern Townships on Lake Brome with a theatre famous for staging plays. Lucie Mayer was planning to première a concert version of the opera with chamber orchestra two months later in June in Montréal (this she did); however, Robert and I were keen to have a staged version in a theatre, but every theatre we considered seemed to cost a fortune.
One day, as I was on my way to teach, I happened to pass Théâtre Arts Knowlton. On an impulse, I decided to drop in on the director. I introduced myself, gave him a description of Robert’s opera, and blatantly asked if we could première the work in his theatre for free, as we had no money. I quickly added that I could guarantee a full house, and would take up a goodwill offering, every cent of which, would go to the theatre. He was a bit taken aback, but said “Yes.”
We all got to work: I produced a costume, we found an appropriately battered old armchair for Miss Havisham to die in, Lucie did her own staging, a theatre technician did the lighting, and Robert coaxed music out of the rickety piano. We even had free publicity: an art teacher at the University designed a poster for the event, which she put up all over the town; and a local newspaper printed an interview with me about the opera.
On the day, my students brought many friends and family, Bishop’s University sent quite a few people, and the newspaper article tempted others we might not have reached by word of mouth. So I ended up true to my word: we had a packed house and raised a nice sum for the theatre.
Everyone enjoyed the opera. My students arranged a reception afterwards, and when Robert arrived, he was greeted with cheers. What a lippity, lovely experience!
In the late 1980’s Robert came across photographs of the peace monument at Hiroshima in Japan, where visitors to the site are invited to ring a bell as an invocation of peace. This image inspired Robert to compose a three-part symphony for chamber orchestra entitled Step Forward and Toll this Bell for Peace.
Part One, subtitled “Elegies, visions of death,” depicts a cold desolate landscape – a nuclear winter – in which the strings and the woodwinds/brass never play together. The music is stark, but in the final chord of the movement, the warm strings finally join the woodwinds and brass; it is the beginning of reconciliation.
Part Two revolves around the central idea of the symphony: in it a bell is hung beside the orchestra, and members of the audience are free to step forward and toll the bell in communion with the bell in Hiroshima. The movement is aleatoric: the various instruments play a series of brief musical fragments which they repeat as often as needed, depending on the number of people who want to ring the bell. The “colour” or tone of this part is warm and positive; there is a quasi-Tibetan character to this reconciliation: as the movement progresses the quiet, churning, repetitive fragments produce a sense of peace.
The experience of ringing the bell has released us from pain. In Part Three, entitled “Metamorphoses, a vision of a transfigured cosmos,” Robert depicts this emotional and spiritual release in a lush, long drawn-out, ecstatic winding melody that climbs ever and ever upward into the cosmos.
In conclusion, Robert is taking us through a three-step journey dear to his heart: first we must acknowledge the destruction, then ask for forgiveness (inherent in a gesture of peace), and only then, are we transformed. This idea must have been important to him because we find it in quite a few of his works: the present symphony, the opera Miss Havisham’s Testament, and his choral symphonic masterpiece, La terra promessa.
In 2009 Robert was commissioned by Vanier College to create a new work to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the opening of the school. Soon afterwards he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was given three to six months to live. Far from rejecting the commission, he embraced it with joy. Robert doggèdly composed a choral symphony, entitled La terra promessa, movement by movement, in spite of three different chemotherapies, five series of radiation treatments, infections, blood clots, and chronic fatigue – absolutely nothing stopped him. Even as he lay in the Intensive Care Unit, where he survived what the doctors thought was impossible to survive, he woke up and said: “Pam, bring me my music.” I have to say that even though I and his son Andrew and daughter-in-law Shannon cradled him with love and support, we knew it was the composing that was keeping him alive. Robert had been thinking and planning this work for over 30 years, but he had never got around to composing it. Now, with the sword of Damocles hanging over him, he took a deep breath and did it.
La terra promessa is a 12-movement symphony for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Robert leads us up, step by step, through a “chain of being” from the formless void before creation to rocks to plants to human beings ending with an ascent to the divine. Though on the surface the piece may appear to be about rocks and plants and people, at a deeper level it is about the divine energy that permeates all these creations.
There is quite a lot of contrast in the scoring of the movements: two are scored for orchestra alone, one is for a cappella choir, several are for chorus and orchestra, others are for chorus and soloists and orchestra, and two are duets (one is for soprano and piano, the other for mezzo-soprano and cello). So the textures and “colours” keep changing.
Robert has always said that “freedom to vary the stylistic mixture from piece to piece and movement to movement” was the hallmark of his style and La terra promessa certainly embraces that eclecticism. However, all of its music, no matter what the style, is rooted in Robert’s ravishing lyricism, that facility he had to compose melodies that one goes away humming, and in his infallible ability to choose just the right harmonies to evoke the particular atmosphere he wants at each step of our journey to “the promised land.”
The journey begins with the Kathleen Raine poem, The World, which begins “It burns in the void.” In it she sees our world at the dawn of time as a shimmering, nebulous globe. Robert sets the poem for chorus and orchestra to lush, but mostly atonal, chords accompanied by an almost continuous background repeating rhythm - perhaps the beating heart of the newly formed world.
Movement Two, “ Tsé Bit’a’i,” is instrumental. Tsé Bit’a’i is a gigantic rock found in the otherwise totally flat desert in the Navajo reservation of New Mexico State. The white man only sees this force of nature as a good rock to climb, but to the Navajos it is Tsé Bit’a’i (rock with wings), the dwelling place of the Gods. Robert visited the structure several times as a child and he sensed that it was a sacred, primordial site - the type of place where one instinctively whispers. He evokes the awesome, mysterious, and sacred character of the formation in hushed minimalist arpeggios mostly for the strings.
In Movement Three, “Monde souterrain,” for chorus and orchestra, Robert quotes from a French translation of the ancient Babylonian poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh; he chooses the part where the hero visits the land of the dead. Robert said “All my favourite poets and heroes from Aeneas to Odysseus to Dante first descend to the underworld before embarking on their journeys to the promised land - so I thought we should do that too.” The music here is somewhat liturgical in character.
Movements Four and Five now ascend the chain of being to plant life. In Movement Four, “The Trees,” Robert sets a text from the diaries of the painter Emily Carr. In this woman’s passionate view of nature, trees are not passive entities but are instead energetic life forces bursting with divine energy. Robert scores the movement for soprano and piano duet. It is a dramatic powerful “aria”, as Robert said, “quite a wild piece,” that is basically atonal but shifts into tonality at key points.
Movement Five, “The Olympic Rainforest,” is instrumental. In it Robert takes musical ideas from “The Trees” and transforms them for orchestra, but sustains throughout the vibrant pulsing energy of the previous movement. Robert had visited the Olympic Rainforest in Washington State as a teenager, and it made a powerful impression on him. Years later, when he read Emily Carr, he thought “this is the vegetation the poet was talking about.”
In Movements Six and Seven we ascend the chain to animal life. Robert sets two contrasting poems of William Blake, the gentle sweet “The Lamb,” from his Songs of Innocence, and the ferocious “The Tyger,” from his Songs of Experience. “The Lamb” is scored for a cappella choir. In the poem Blake first describes the gentle lamb, and then compares the animal to the innocent Christ-child. Robert sets the gentle words in rich, tonal block-chords with just a hint of rhythmic movement. The piece begins in four-part writing, which expands later to six-part, then seven-part; as the chords get deeper and wider, the dynamics get quieter and quieter. In these hushed but deep tones, Robert evokes both the tender animal and the holy child. “The Lamb” is quite easy to learn and its serenity is magical; it has become one of Robert’s most performed pieces.
Movement Seven, for choir and orchestra, jolts us out of the peaceful trance engendered by “The Lamb”, into the other extreme of the animal world, “The Tyger.” Blake vividly describes this most ferocious of God’s creatures: “In what distant deeps or skies, Burnt the fire of thine eyes? ...And when thy heart began to beat, What dread hand? & what dread feet?” This animal is so terrifying that, at first sight of him, the stars “watered heaven with their tears.” Robert’s music is tense, ominous, and even frightening, as if the tyger is stalking a victim; and at descriptions of the tyger’s deadly terrors, there are fortissimo, bone-crushing dissonances.
Movement Eight, “Desecration,” takes us up the chain to human beings, and we are doing what we do best: desecrating the world. Robert sets a passage from “The Book of Isaiah” where the prophet describes the misery and chaos of those who do not respect God’s natural world. Robert composed this movement on one of those evenings he was taken into the Emergency at the Jewish General Hospital. Although he admits he found many caring medical personnel, he was also struck by the noise and chaos. Any musician, or really any sensitive person, knows precisely what he was talking about: it is a loud chaotic world full of bells, pings, lights, announcements, moans, groans, cries, and rushing feet. It is this tense atmosphere that Robert is depicting in “Desecration.” He scores it for choir, brass, and a batterie of percussion (no woodwinds or strings to warm up the atmosphere). The movement is in honour of Bryan Highbloom, the music therapist at the JGH, who did so much to ease Robert’s suffering by either playing for him or just talking to him about music. He is a tenor saxophonist, hence the emphasis on brass, but in addition, brass and percussion lend themselves to creating grating, loud noises. The movement alternates minimalist, pulsating repeated chords with sections of decay, where there is extensive unpitched percussion.
After the gloom and despair of “The Tyger” and “Desecration,” Robert lets in the sunlight with two poems about sex and love because, he firmly believed, “the way out of despair is through love.”
In Movement Nine for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, Robert begins his exploration of love through the sexual life of animals. He sets Walt Whitman’s poem “The Dalliance of the Eagles.” The poet had been taking a morning walk when he heard a flutter of sounds in the air above him. He looks up and realizes it is two eagles mating. What follows in the poem is a beautiful description of the motions and sounds of the eagles in their love dance.
The poem is so graphically descriptive that the composer is content to set it in quite a literal programmatic fashion. He opens with a very tranquil alto flute and piano duet, but when the text begins “Skirting the river road... my forenoon walk,” he brings in the human element, a baritone solo, accompanied by the piano in a repetitive chordal pattern. He tells the pianist to play the chords “like a bardic procession” - as if this walk is connected to something ritualistic. As the eagles begin to mate at the words “the rushing amorous contact,” the whole orchestra and chorus enter in riotous joy. Then, at the words “the clinching interlocking claws,” the solo soprano, tenor and baritone parts all weave around each other amorously. Robert introduces fleeting quotations from three composers who were life-long friends (Herman Weiss, Henry Mollicone, and alcides lanza). He chooses pieces from each of them that have something to do with sex.xi
At the end of the movement, the birds depart and go their separate ways. At the words “She hers --- he his” Robert stops the riotous counterpoint and brings in the chorus and soloists in solemn block chords - as if we need to pause in wonderment at the gift that nature has given us. The music now returns to the serene alto flute solo heard at the beginning, but this time, it is accompanied by vibraphone and harp giving the passage a far off tingly feeling.
Movement Ten takes us up the chain to human love and, in this piece, Robert gives full vent to his natural lyricism. He sets verses from the “Song of Songs” (Shir ha-shirim) from the Old Testament in a Latin translation. He chose verses in which the female is describing the beauty of the male belovèd and vice-versa, the male describing the beauty of the female. It opens with a very languorous melody which is passed around from woodwind to woodwind and later comes back in many different instruments. Robert admitted that this melody came to him when he woke up after taking a new pain-killing drug that had been prescribed for him; but he thought this drug-induced melody and harmony quite appropriate as the lovers are clearly in an hormonal love-trance. The soprano solo and the tenor solo represent the lovers, and there are gorgeous violin and viola solos which also represent them. The music is not so much sensual, as rather an ecstatic, rapturous treasuring of the belovèd; and when the entire orchestra and chorus join the soloists in this joyous, cherishing love duet, the effect is ravishing.
With Movement Eleven, “Mirrored Moon,” we climb up the chain of being to Divine love. Robert was attracted to the idea found in many ancient sources that one climbs a high mountain to reach the Divine. He considered a number of poems, and finally decided on “Mirrored Moon” by the medieval Chinese poet Han Shan. In it, the poet climbs a high mountain and, by nightfall, reaches the lake on the top. He sits by the lake and sees the reflection of the moon in the water, but realises that this moon is not real; and in a moment of Zen awareness, he understands what is real and what is illusion in this life.
All of the English translations of the poem were in copyright, and Robert was worried about how little time he had left to get permission from publishers to set it; the original Chinese, however, was out of copyright, so in a moment of inspiration, I suggested that he set the original and get help with the pronunciation from our Chinese neighbour, Yanan Zhang. She readily agreed and worked hard to make a beautiful recording of the poem for Robert; she even telephoned back home to China to get help with the pronunciation of the ancient Chinese characters. This recording of the Chinese is available through me to any singer who wants to learn the piece.
After the maximalist use of forces in the previous two movements, Robert wanted something simpler here. I have always felt that this movement is the quiet, introspective part one finds in so many symphonies before the rush of the grand finale. Robert chose to set the poem to a duet for mezzo-soprano and cello. He had been listening to the Bach cello suites and the opening flourish of the cello, which climbs from a very low to a very high register, somewhat resembles one of the flowing movements of a Bach suite; but when the voice enters, it is all simplicity: she and the cellist begin to have pared-down, very quiet, skeletal phrases. Eventually they are both in unison, and near the end, the singer starts to speak the words, and finally, simply to hum the last phrase. She is thus entering the world of meditation, going inward, with fewer and fewer outward gestures. She is in Zen space.
“Mirrored Moon” is an intimate, inward meditation on divine love. Movement Twelve, “La rosa celestiale,” on the other hand, is an outward outpouring of joy in the divine. The movement opens with a horn call that sounds like a Tibetan call to prayer, followed by a solo-soprano and mezzo-soprano singing in parallel fifths in Sanskrit - creating an ancient, sacred atmosphere.
Robert takes his idea for the movement from Dante, one of his favorite poets. In the Divine Comedy Dante, upon reaching the innermost depths of Paradiso, is taken to the centre of a gigantic rose inhabited by the souls of the redeemed. In Robert’s rose they are singing joyful praises to God. The listener becomes a traveller among the rose-petals stopping here and there to savour the heavenly music. We hear fragments of a hymn in Sanskrit, a multitude of “Alleluias,” a medieval hymn to the Holy Spirit, repetitions of the word “Sanctus,” and a hymn to the Blessed Virgin (Salve Regina). Sometimes we only hear one fragment, at other times two, three, or four together in complex counterpoint. It is all jubilant; but eventually, the musical roads we travel lead to a glorious outburst by choir and orchestra of Robert’s heartfelt setting of the medieval hymn “Come, Holy Spirit, Come.” The moment is overwhelming: it is the composer’s statement of faith.
This movement and the symphony end in simplicity: Robert returns to the opening prayer call and the two soloists in delicate parallel fifths getting softer and softer with each phrase. Then, in a near-whisper, all forces converge on one chord with the sacred word “Om”: we have reached the centre of the Celestial Rose; we have reached La terra promessa.
After the final sacred “Om” of the symphony there was a hushed intake of breath from the audience, a stunned pause before the clapping began - as if no one wanted to break the magic spell. Then 800 people roared out their appreciation; at least 100 lined up to shake the composer’s hand (something that terrified me because I knew that his immune system was shot); but I was so grateful to God that my Robert had lived to hear the première.
Robert died on 03 April, 2012. I was on one side of him, his son on the other, and we cradled him in our arms through his final journey to his promised land. Robert was a man who was, at times, slow of speech; when one asked him a question one had to wait patiently for the response. But music, on the other hand, flowed out of him with no barriers. After La terra promessa quite a few musicians asked me “Is he a trumpet player? Does he play the tuba? Is he a violinist? He writes so well for my instrument.” Robert could do it all with ease: sight-reading, accompanying, orchestrating, composing - it all gushed out of him as naturally as a river flowing to the sea. As such, he was a very lucky man.
The last words he said to me were droll. He had drifted into a coma four days before his death. I knew that he could still hear, so I played all of his quiet, intimate pieces for him. One day he suddenly came out of the coma for a few seconds and said “Pam, more bombast!” Even in those circumstances, I laughed.
Robert could compose under any conditions. For example, I would take him shoe shopping at a mall and, as I tried on the shoes, I would see little jerks in his face and hand movements; then I knew that it was no use asking him what shoes I should buy, for he was composing. It was the same anywhere: no matter what noise or distraction, he could enter that special place deep inside -- his compositional private world where he was totally one with himself and God.