THE HAPPY PRINCE
for violin soloist, narrator, and chamber orchestra
Program notes by the composer 12/15/94
I wrote The Happy Prince in the spring and summer of 1978, in thanksgiving for the birth of our second daughter, Eva. The work is dedicated to Eva and her older sister Dawn, who were 2 and 11 respectively when the work was premiered in Omaha by the Nebraska Sinfonia under the direction of Thomas Briccetti.
Oscar Wilde's story made a powerful impression on me when, at the age of eleven, I heard my sixth grade teacher's reading of the tale near Christmastime, but thirty years were to pass before I felt confident enough of my technique to write music that would dramatize the words without distracting from them. I was drawn to the story because of its lyric imagery - - a natural for musical accompaniment -- as well as its appealing and universal symbols of charity, redemption, and resurrection.
The Happy Prince, at its creation, was the latest in a series of works I had written to explore the symbiotic relationships between words and music. This exploration had begun during a decade in which I wrote several art songs based on English poetry (1961-71); then followed with a one-act opera, The System, based on a tale of Edgar Allan Poe (1973); an a cappella choral cycle, My Wilderness, based on poems of Carl Sandburg and others (1975); and The Eve of St. Agnes, an "opera of instrumentalists" (1976) which used small wind ensemble groups placed antiphonally in the concert hall to act out the Keats poem on which the work was based.
It was my intention to create a closer bond between program music and its narrative than Prokofiev was able to do with Peter and the Wolf, whose start-music, stop-music, start- narration, stop-narration jerkiness was unavoidable in an age before sophisticated miking techniques would enable the narrator to speak her words over continuous orchestral sound. I therefore designed The Happy Prince with intentional "windows" in the music where the narrator's words would be required to fit; much of the music was also written in the lower to middle range of the orchestra to complement the female narrator's voice I had in mind, that of my wife Dalia. While the narrator is necessarily the focal point of the work, it resembles, on another level, a violin concerto, in which the constant arabesques and cadenzas of the solo violin represent the swallow of the story. Several musical leit-motifs, used in the manner of Wagner, appear in the music to portray other events and characters of the Wilde tale.
The Happy Prince was chosen from over fifty new chamber music scores as winner of the Omaha Symphony Guild's 1979 New Music Competition, and was performed ten times in the Omaha Nebraska area by Thomas Briccetti and the Nebraska Sinfonia, Dalia Bach narrating and Stephen Shipps as the violin soloist. It has since been performed by several other orchestras -- most recently, the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra of Israel, The Illinois Chamber Orchestra, and Chicago's Metropolis Symphony Orchestra -- and has been commercially recorded and published.