Three Sunsets (2008, 2010)
Text by Lewis Carroll
Music by Adam Reifsteck
Instrumentation: countertenor, horn, 2 violins, viola, cello, piano
Original Instrumentation: 1 fl./pic., 1 cl., 1 ob., 1 bn., 2 hn., 1 tpt., 1 tbn., chimes, vib., glock., perc., pno., countertenor or mezzo-soprano, strings
Published after his death in 1898, Lewis Carroll’s poem "Three Sunsets" explores the deepest of human emotions—love and loss. These complex emotions are often difficult to describe in words, yet Carroll is able to draw the reader into this world and project the shared feelings of all humanity. Unlike romantic poetry of his time, this work by Carroll is written in third person as a retelling of the story between two star-crossed lovers. This perspective allows the reader to experience the emotions of both the woman and the man.
All of us have experienced finding love, losing it, and hopefully finding it again. This is perhaps why one can easily relate to Carroll’s poem "Three Sunsets." Our protagonist, however, never learns to let go of his lover when the relationship comes to an end. He lives out the rest of his life miserable and alone. So often we may want to hold on to people who were only meant to come into our lives for just a while in order to teach us something about ourselves. Perhaps the hardest thing to do in life is to let go and say goodbye. Letting go and saying goodbye is a necessity so we can grow and experience the fullness of life. Like the main character in the poem, there is the danger of being so consumed by our grief that we are unable to be open to the positive influences and new beginnings that can result from letting go.
When we enter into a relationship with someone, whether in friendship or love, we eventually have to come to realize that the relationship will ultimately end either in death or other circumstances. This concept seems to tantalize the man in "Three Sunsets." Therefore, he is unable to go beyond himself and see the bigger picture. After many years, the woman passes the man on the same street corner where they had met to bid farewell. Consumed by his misery, he did not recognize his lost love. The woman did, however, and silently pitied him because he was not able to let go with love and experience the fullness of life as she did. The message Carroll perhaps is conveying is that we must be able to let go of our pain and suffering and see the world again through a child’s eye. This may be why Carroll was drawn to writing mostly children’s stories. He longed for that innocence. Life becomes complicated as we get older, but do we make it more complicated than it actually is?
In this musical setting, I centered the work on C-minor; a key that I feel is suiting for the text as it evokes both somberness and nostalgia. While the first 150 measures remains in C-minor, the addition of minor third relationships between chordal progressions becomes important as a text painting devise to establish the sense of uncertainty.
The first two stanzas of the poem begin in a hopeful tone, yet the music is in direct contrast to this sentiment. The opening falling fourth in the bass is the quintessential motive for sadness. Then, the voice enters with a minor sixth, the saddest of intervals. Although this may seem limiting in the ability to transform emotions, the dark quality of the music establishes the unrelenting sadness present in Carroll’s poem. While there are no earth-shattering concepts in the piece, I attempted to draw on the influence from the late Romantic Era as well as incorporate more modern chord progressions and melodic development.
The text more or less dictated the form of the composition. The meter of the poem remains consistent through out in terms of the stressed syllables (8 8 8 8 8 8) which lends itself to be strophic. However, just as the story unfolds, the music unfolds: A A A A B B C C C C D D E A A C D A A with interludes sometimes separating each section before new material is added. Although sections are repeated, it is never orchestrated the same way twice. The form of the text mimics that of a nursery rhyme, but to set the music as such would be trite.
Shifts in tonal centers group the stanzas of the poem into distinct sections. Interestingly enough, the F chord serves as a pivot for all of the key modulations, just as time references (“so after many years”, “long time the memory”, etc.) serve as a literary devise to push the story in different directions and perspectives.
In performance of this work, conveying the text should be of the utmost importance. Therefore, the text should be performed by the countertenor (or mezzo-soprano) very lyrically and dramatically. The dynamic indications are by no means exhaustive and balance between instruments should take precedence over the markings. The instruments should play cantabile for the majority of the work except at rehearsal F and J. These sections should be played lightly and detached. The composition should also be performed at the tempos indicated. From measures 496 to the end, however, it should not be done in strict tempo, but quasi recitative. Originally scored for countertenor and chamber orchestra, the work was revised and re-orchestrated for small ensemble (countertenor, horn, string quartet, and piano) in 2010.
While Carroll’s poetry remains open to all explanations of meaning, the music I wrote to accompany this particular poem hopefully conveys the artistry, sensitivity, and emotional depth inherent in "Three Sunsets."