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USC Premier:

2014. 10-12 minutes. 2(2dPc+AFl),2,2(1dECl,2dBCl),2(2dCBsn), 4,3,3,1, Timp+3, Hp, Pno, Str

The Latin phrase “Et in Arcadia Ego” is a wonderful little line that nobody seems to know the actual meaning of. The words essentially translate, “I am also in Arcadia,” and are most famously known as the subject of two paintings by Nicolas Poussin from the seventeenth century. I first encountered the subject when reading an essay by the art historian Erwin Panofsky, in which he traces the evolution of interpretation of the phrase by artists. The main point of his thesis is that the phrase originally was seen as a memento mori, conveying the warning that even in paradise, there is also death (personified as the “I”). Over time this meaning was gradually reversed: even in death, one may find paradise. Other interpretations of the phrase Panofsky cites range from a depiction of “elegiac sentiment,” to meditations on the past, to simply depicting pastoral beauty as seen by an artist (the artist replacing death as the “I”), and everything in between.

Panofsky’s analysis, as well as the various artistic interpretations of the phrase, immediately struck me as a source for musical elaboration. It had everything: life, death, a pastoral setting, contemplation, emotion, humor, a concept (Arcadia) that appears in both intellectual discussion as well as pop culture, etc.. The resulting piece is an abstract reaction to the Latin subject and its various artistic guises. While nothing in the piece is a literal depiction, there are two ideas that stem directly from the life and death images associated with the subject. The piece opens with atmospheric sounds made by the strings playing unpitched material behind the bridge (a well-known technique for representing death in music thanks to Bernard Herrmann, though I do not use it in the same way as he). Against that, simple triadic gestures (the “life-blood” of tonal harmony) begin to pop out of the murk. Eventually, the music breaks into a fast, playful mood completely opposite to the introduction, exploring a variety of moods and colors.

Recording of the Thornton Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Donald Crockett.