Transatlantic: A Fantasy for Violin and Cello

Composed by: Thom Huenger
Performed by: Stephen Czarkowski, Cello
Jeffry Newberger, Violin

Performed Friday, June 26th, 7p
Baltimore Jewelry Center

Notes from the composer:

This piece was inspired by the concept of the Site Effects jewelry exhibition. Images of the work and the prompts that inspired them were studied, and to begin the composition process I gave myself a prompt in the form of two composers. Transatlantic draws from the styles and practices of English composer, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), and American composer, Elliott Carter (1908-2012). Britten and Carter were contemporaries throughout the 20th century but their practices and philosophies in regard to music composition were vastly different from one another. Britten’s work remained more accessible than many of the 20th century modernist composers whereas Carter’s work was more experimental in nature. Two pieces that influenced this work were Britten’s first cello suite, and Carter’s 4 Lauds for solo violin. Britten’s cello suite is full of lush harmonies and counterpoint, while Carter’s 4 Lauds is much more angular and segmented. A melding of those characteristics can be found within Transatlantic.

Shortly after beginning the work, COVID-19 swept across the globe and I was quarantined at home, unable to go anywhere. The reason it is important to mention these conditions in regard to Transatlantic is because aside from the original inspiration–Site Effects, Britten, and Carter–there were other emergent themes that appeared during the composition process. Feelings of isolation and a yearning for human connection play a role throughout the piece. You can hear it in the solo sections, but also, during a moment when the cello is bowing an open 5th on the lowest strings and like a distant voice calling out for help the violin enters with a repeating motive. I began to think of how early travellers crossing the Atlantic must have felt. Confinement and isolation on their boats, or planes with rolling waves or sudden bouts of turbulence all to be followed by moments of quiet calm. These themes manifested themselves in the orchestration of certain moments, and the juxtaposition of contrasting sections.

Transatlantic follows a loose arch form making it palindromic in structure. The piece begins and ends with the harmonic material from which all other musical material is derived. Soon we are introduced to the primary theme which is based on a three note motive. E, A, D#. A descending perfect fifth followed immediately with an ascending tritone. It is a striking sound that resonates throughout the entire piece. After a section of development of the main theme and harmonic material, we enter the first solo section which features the cello. It is lyrical at first, unfolding the two principal harmonies, and quickly turns chaotic and frantic, and back again to lyrical. The cello and violin briefly reunite in the next section that finds the violin isolated in the upper registers while the cello lets out a quiet droning perfect 5th. A solo violin section follows and continues to develop the main theme and eventually launches into a chaotic and frantic section in unison with the cello. As before, this frantic moment is eventually met by a return to calm, and a restatement of opening sections with some recomposed moments. As it began, it ends with the two principal harmonies fading quietly over the horizon.

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