On February 12, the Brentano String Quartet will perform the world premiere of a composition by Steven Mackey at Carnegie Hall. We asked him 5 questions about One Red Rose, written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The titles of the three movements (1. Five Short Studies, 2. Fugue and Fantasy, 3. Anthem and Aria) are surprisingly generic and formal. Was this dictated by the emotional nature of the subject matter?
Yes, exactly. I wanted the piece to be connected to the assassination but not be dependent on it. The governing metaphors for the work were more abstract than representational. A dominant thread throughout the piece is the exploration of the dialectic between public versus private as manifested in the events of late November 1963. To clarify, I was 7 years old, I was home from school sick in bed, watching TV, when the news broke in. I heard my neighbor burst in the house screaming the news to my mother. They both became transfixed by this international news story while sobbing as if it was their personal loss. Another example is the idea of a state funeral which is a very public event governed by strict protocols. The members of the family are in some sense performing the rite for the sake of a broader public and for that performance a certain dignity and stoicism is assumed. Yet, their own deep loss and personal grief has to be dealt with at some point. The third movement – Anthem and Aria – embodies that dialectic quite clearly: an Anthem is typically a musical expression of public feelings like patriotism, devotion, etc. while an Aria is the place in an opera where an individual character expresses personal emotion.
Another thread connecting the piece to the assassination is the simultaneous chaos and control on many different levels. I see this as being related to the idea of public and private or group versus individual. The swirling chaos of a manhunt and the meticulous, microscopic examination of the 6th floor of the book depository for clues. A frenzied race to the hospital while Jackie Kennedy immovably comforts her husband. Fugue and Fantasy embodies this kind of contrast in that a fugue is very a highly structured musical form but, in this case, it’s expressive character is wild, even chaotic.
Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (arranged for string orchestra from the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11) was broadcast over the TV when the death of John F. Kennedy was announced. Do you have any recollection of this and has this piece (even subconsciously?) influenced you for One Red Rose?
I do not have a recollection of that specific airing of Barber’s Adagio during the TV coverage in 1963. Yet I would say that the adagio has had, at least, a subconscious influence on more than just this work simply because it is gorgeous and has become an iconic hymn used as expressive underscoring in many contexts.
In a recent interview, you said that you once thought that this event, like 9/11, was “just too big for music.” How did you overcome this obstacle?
Focusing on my empathy and sympathy for those close to JFK, particularly Jackie, made it personal to me and allowed me to imagine music as a response.
Another thing that you mentioned in the interview is your penchant for playfulness, that you had to curb while writing this piece. Was it the first time that you had to restrict your emotional range for a commission?
I think this was the first time that I felt such emotional restrictions. I recently wrote a piece about the experience of my mother’s death but playfulness had a role in that work in delineating my mother’s playfulness and a sense of the life force that was extinguishing. “Playfulness” and “humor” were important parts of who my mother was but I didn’t know JFK and had no business projecting such personality traits on him or on the occasion.
If you could have picked another instrumentation for the same commission, what would you have chosen?
I can’t think of anything better for this project than the string quartet! The quartet is capable of whispering intimacy and yet has enough sonic versatility to suggest a grand public scale. If I had a different instrumentation I probably would have sought a different way to connect to the assassination.
Brentano String Quartet
Haydn, String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 2, “Joke”
Steven Mackey, One Red Rose (World Premiere, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall)
Beethoven, String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2
Tuesday, February 12, 2013 | 7:30 PM
Carnegie Hall | Zankel Hall