Program notes

Chamber Suite from The Children’s Bach, opus 74b (2009)

  1. 1. Sonorous, rich, seedy and warm
  2. 2. Swift, witty and with verve

Leonardo da Vinci said “Art is never finished only abandoned” and he was dead right! For some years I feel I may have been the white mouse in a bizarre experiment in musical semiotics. That is, where one idea becomes another and with it the whole ‘meaning’ content of the work gets changed in disturbing ways.

So I wrote a chamber piece called After Nina in 2007 as a trial run of harmonic material for the opera The Children’s Bach (2008) which I was about to start and whilst I waited for the libretto to arrive. After Nina has quite a dark theme. But After Nina itself took melodic material from another somewhat sombre work, Endling (2007) for orchestra which itself was an expansion of a choral piece called Wild Flower. Wild Flower was written quickly in 2006 in response to a last minute commission for a brain tumour patient about to enter surgery and took its main musical idea from a brief harmonic passage I felt had potential in the orchestral piece written earlier that same year, Once upon a time… – by comparison, a very playful and genial piece on the whole.

Now with this Chamber Suite I’m saying enough is enough – it’s time to abandon ship. I find the way the meaning content has mutated over the various connected pieces to be quite strange: something musical can mean its exact opposite as long as you (the listener) believe it to be so.

So this Chamber Suite takes some of the music from The Children’s Bach grouped into two movements – slow and then fast.  The opera is in two acts and is scored for a group of six instrumentalists and a cast of seven characters, two of whom are children. It is set in inner suburban Melbourne and is to a libretto by Glenn Perry based on Helen Garner’s eponymous novel. E Harold Davies’ compilation for Allans in the 1930s of Bach’s easier keyboard works features in the novel and the opera and is the reason for the name, The Children’s Bach.

The blurb for the book gives a brief synopsis, “Athena and Dexter lead an enclosed family life in Melbourne, innocent of fashion and bound by duty towards an autistic child, Billy. Their comfortable rut is disrupted by the arrival of Elizabeth, a tough nut from Dexter’s past. With her sister (Vicki), fickle boyfriend (Philip) and his smart teenage daughter (Poppy), she draws the couple out into a world whose casual egotism and sexuality they had barely dreamed of. Can they get home again?” (The Children’s Bach – Helen Garner, Penguin Books, 1999).

To the bare bones of the novel we added a line of musical thought around the ever-present upright piano which various characters play. Much of the opera is seen though the eyes of Billy as he gradually acquires enough skill at the piano to play a short Bach-like Prelude near the end of the opera. We also see the world through the eyes of Poppy who provides a sassy, fugal commentary on the adult characters and their self-indulgent but entertaining love lives.

The Chamber Suite is about 35 minutes duration and was written for The Griffith Trio with the aid of an Australia Council Composer Fellowship in mid-2009. The scoring is for clarinet, violin, cello, percussion and piano.

© Andrew Schultz, 2009