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Prospero Variations (2015)

Instrumentation: Soprano, Flute, Clarinet, Violin, 'Cello, Piano, Percussion
Duration: ca. 30'
Text by William Shakespeare, adapted by Douglas Buchanan
Commissioned by the LUNAR ensemble
Premiere Date: September 18, 2015, Baltimore, MD

Program Note

In addition to being (likely) the last play that he wrote alone, The Tempest is also one of the most overtly musical of Shakespeare’s works. Though much of his writing references music and associated revelry (for instance, the famous monologue “If musicke be the food of love,” from another storm-tossed play, Twelfth Night), the use of music-as-magic throughout The Tempest is truly remarkable. In addition to being pervasive, it is also egalitarian. It seems no surprise that, Ariel, a sprite of the air, would use music to enchant spirit and human alike (his song “Full fathom five” is famously found in the repertoire of Igor Stravinsky, Michael Tippett, and Ralph Vaughan Williams). Surprisingly, the earthy and vengeful earth-spirit Caliban also shows a sensitivity for music: “Be not afeard, this isle is full of noises: sounds and sweet airs, which give delight, and hurt not.”

I was delighted, then, to have the opportunity to work with this text in 2011 when Roger Brunyate, then director of the Peabody Opera program, commissioned me to write the music for Ariel’s Tempest, a one-act version of the play performed as an outreach project to children in the greater Baltimore and Annapolis areas. I was also fortunate to have Danielle Buonaiuto—who premiered the current work’s version of Prospero—give premiere performances as the Narrator. Both her performance, and the music developed from the source material, begged to be revisited in an expanded work.

The result, after a long period of gestation, is Prospero Variations, a fantasia on texts freely garnered from throughout The Tempest. Most of the words come from Prospero or the spirits, Ariel and Caliban. The (purposefully loose) plot draws on the magical trope of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: a magician summons creatures (here, embodied through the instruments of the ensemble) beyond their control, and must face the consequences. In the original play, Prospero served as a creative nexus: balancing between the real and fantastic worlds within the play, and serving (perhaps) as a reflection of the author. Herein, Prospero serves a similar role: as composer and composed, director and directed—vying for, and, ultimately, relinquishing control over the creative forces summoned. The plot, therefore, is more mythic than linear, a hero’s-journey-cum-meditation where spirits both kind and malicious reveal the revels of creation, the prison of depression, and the fragile thread of hope that lies between and beyond.

Prospero Variations is dedicated to Gemma New, Danielle Buonaiuto, and the tireless musicians of the LUNAR ensemble. It was premiered on September 18, 2015, in Baltimore, Maryland.

— Douglas Buchanan


Prospero Variations


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