Monday, May 4, 2015

Visual Music - Richard Wilson's "Sour Flowers"

Richard Wilson is a composer I've often considered for one of these articles - and I enjoy playing some of his works - but he keeps getting backburnered in favor of nuttier nutjobs.  I personally just think that a lot of his music falls into the same formulas, most certainly his own formulas, but formulas just the same.  However, if I had to pick a favorite piece of his I'd slap down my copy of Sour Flowers* with no hesitation, and I finally realized that I could feature it as part of my Visual Music series.

Sour Flowers (1979) is a piano suite in the form of a 15th-century herbal, a guidebook to useful plants that attributes many a dubious claim to their curative abilities.  It's a unique set among piano literature that is such a neat idea I'm surprised I hadn't seen it before, putting a spin on sets inspired by flowers to focus on what some would call weeds.  As its inspiration is drawn from early Renaissance documents, Wilson opted to have the pieces hand-engraved to give the illusion that printing hadn't quite been invented yet.  The "musical autography" was done by Frederic Woodbridge Wilson (no relation, as far as I can tell), curator of Harvard's Theatre Collection for 13 years, then a young musicologist who had recently gotten his degree from NYU and was deeply involved in choral conducting.  By all accounts his work makes me wish I was a much finer draftsman:

Each of the eight movements has one herb attached to it; all the herbs and their descriptions were drawn from herbals from the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and their names and descriptions are quaint and charming.  I find it interesting how the author precedes descriptions of the herb's effects with "The virtue of this herb is thus."  Not a colon, but a period.  All the herbs are claimed to have interesting uses, such as the "virtue" of Elena Campana:

As Sour Flowers is a suite, each movement has a standard character genre attached to it, such as "March", "Waltz", "Nocturne", and so on.  The musical language of these pieces is atonal but modest and highly reminiscent of classical phrasing, sort of like what Schoenberg did in order to introduce serialism in his Suite for piano.  The harmonies and mood are quirky and good-natured, combining with the extramusical context and handmade engraving to make a fresh, home-and-hearth atmosphere with a heavy dose of wry humor.  Wilson was fully aware of how the uses of these herbs was heavily tied up in folk magic and superstition, and the "Benediction" movement is attached to a use for St. John's Wort: "If it be put in a man's house, there shall come no wicked spirit therein."  It's a really nice balance between antique sensibilities and modern skepticism, and this is no more apparent than in the penultimate movement, "Prelude".  The herb is cinquefoil (spelled quinquefoil in the score), and it's description reads: "Stamp it and drink the juice of it in ale, and it will cease the aching and gnawing of man or woman."  Like the rest of us, Wilson couldn't help but see dark sexual overtones to that highly suggestive sentence, and as such the "Prelude" has the most complex, atmospheric and engrossing music of the set:

While this looks challenging all the pieces were written to be playable by students at a late High School or collegiate level, most likely the most accessible piano music he's ever written.  The fact that I haven't heard this on a single piano recital is a bit worrying, but at least it's not too much work to fit it in.  Here's a fine performance by the composer:

Now if someone could get around to writing music based on the Voynich Manuscript I'd be able to die happy.


*I got Sour Flowers as a Christmas gift and upon opening it noticed that the composer had autographed it.  I remembered that the signed copy was one I had stumbled across on eBay some time earlier and wasn't priced any higher than a normal used copy - just another indicator that nobody gives to shites about classical composers signing things.

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