Performance by the San Antonio Symphony, reviewed in the San Antonio Express-News by Mike Greenburg (November 2007). This concert was named to the San Antonio Express-News' Top Ten Classical Events of 2007.
"This is intense, deeply felt music, admirably clear in structure, masterful in harmony and orchestral color....music of undeniable power. It demands, holds and rewards attention, and it exemplifies the use of music to turn our thoughts to the world beyond music."
The title of the piece, Something Miraculous Burns, comes from the beginning of the poem Music by the Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova (as translated by Judith Hermschemeyer). This poem was dedicated to the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose String Quartet No. 8 in C, Op. 110 was haunting me around the time I began to write this piece. Shostakovich and Op. 110 seemed to keep crossing my path wherever I turned in the Spring of 2007, most notably in William T. Vollmann’s book Europe Central which I was reading at the time. There is no real main character in this historical novel, but Shostakovich's presence looms greater than anyone else's. Vollmann dedicates one of the longest chapters in the book just to this string quartet, which Shostakovich composed after seeing the devastation caused by the Dresden bombings at the end of World War II. However, Op. 110 is really about Shostakovich himself at this low point in his life, a time during which he even contemplated suicide.
I see parallels between the oppressive nature of Shostakovich’s Stalin-era experience as portrayed in Europe Central (and in Op. 110), and increases in domestic spying and the stifling of dissent in America in the last few years. In addition, just as Shostakovich reacted to the horrors of his time, most notably the 900-day siege of Leningrad, much of which he personally lived through, I found myself enlarging the scope of my thoughts to contemporary crises. In Akhmatove’s poem, the entire first line is Something miraculous burns in her (meaning music). By removing the object of the sentence, I have opened the line up to other interpretations, invoking all the “miraculous” things – perhaps unique would be a better word – that we have been burning: the World Trade Center burns, Iraq burns, Darfur burns, and even the planet is burning up, leaving extinctions of so many “miracles” in its wake.
Something Miraculous Burns is, therefore, a dark work. Most of the piece is very slow, practically a dirge, with a contrasting fast section in the middle (which was influenced by Shostakovich’s own macabre scherzo movements). I obsessively use two musical motives from Shostakovich’s Op. 110: a rhythm and melody. The rhythm is simply three notes, probably Shostakovich’s way of invoking the knock on his door he waited for – expected even – from the Soviet KGB. The melody, which begins Op. 110, is the musical motto Shostakovich used to represent himself: D (for Dmitri), E-flat (“Es” or S in German), C, and B (which is “H” in German), for the first three letters of his last name (as he spelled it, “Sch”). By coincidence, the first and last notes of this four note figure are my initials (DH), and these are the first two notes of the piece.
Something Miraculous Burns was composed for Maestro Larry Rachleff and the San Antonio Symphony and was funded in part by the Composer Assistance Program of the American Music Center.
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