Hartke, Stephen: The King of the Sun

From composer STEPHEN HARTKE:

Of the five and one half movements that comprise my piano quartet, The King of the Sun, it was the second (Dutch interior) that was composed last, and thus, because it was written with the benefit of hindsight regarding the rest of the work, it is in some ways the key to the whole. To begin, it bears the word ‘Phantasmagorically’ as its tempo marking to suggest the constant shifting of musical images that drives the piece. The musical materials derive from a late medieval canon entitled Le ray au soleyl (‘the Sun’s ray’) that was jotted down on some empty staves at the foot of a manuscript page otherwise devoted to a chanson by the Flemish composer Johannes Ciconia (c. 1370-1412), and hence has been generally misattributed to him even though clearly the work of a less accomplished musician (though no less delightful for that). The movement title itself, as is the case with all the other movements, is taken from a painting by Joan Miró. In Miró’s Dutch Interior, he based his composition on a picture postcard of a painting by the 17th-century Dutch genre painter Jan Steen, but his treatment is so delightfully willful and whimsical that the original is barely recognizable. In my Dutch interior, I subject the canon (which might be considered Dutch in provenance by some) to similar distortion, most notably rendering it as a violin solo in which the original’s contrapuntal character is negated by the verticals of the violin multiple-stops which must be used to account for all the notes in the canon’s texture. The underpinning of this solo has nothing to do directly with the violin part, but evokes the spirit of medieval music in its form, an estampie, and in its isorhythmic structure. The canon also appears in the fourth movement, ‘The flames of the sun make the desert flower hysterical’, now compressed into the bright, violent chords that open the piece, and then returning at the end in a direct quotation that breaks off abruptly as soon as the first serious contrapuntal ‘error’ is heard.

The remaining movements deal with other issues, among them the recurrent ‘snail music’ heard first at the very beginning of the work and in several other movements thereafter. But, most curiously for a piece entitled The King of the Sun, most of the movements take place indoors or at night, but for the fateful solar encounter of the hapless desert flower. I had no idea in starting out that this would be the outcome, but I welcomed it, for all its being somewhat convoluted and even arcane, because, quite simply, it was fun to do. Thus just as Miró’s painting is both whimsical and serious, I have sought to accomplish the same thing in my music.

Postscript from Tim Summers:

For the purpose of this festival’s programming, it is worth noting a passing resemblance between Hartke’s The King of the Sun and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (concert of September 19) ‘ a series of resemblances, in fact, which also are ‘both whimsical and serious.’ The spectacular titles of the movements, set against a prosaically titled ‘interlude/intermède’; the grand consequence of a misreading (‘King/Ray of the sun’, ‘No more time/delay’); the birds, the organ, the cathedral (Messiaen was an ornithologist, an organist, and a devout Catholic); the bizarre tempo marking ‘Granitic’ (mvt. III) in Hartke and ‘Granitique’ in Messiaen (mvmt. VI) – indicating something like the ‘music of hard stone’; the piano quartet instrumentation: all these elements refer lightly to Messiaen’s great chamber work. Hartke himself has described his regard for ‘Three M’s’; Messiaen, Machaut, and Monteverdi. (For a reference to Machaut, see György Kurtàg’s Hommage à Robert Schumann, concert of September 23.) In the same way the piece bears a loose relationship to the paintings, so, less overtly, it bears one to Messiaen’s Quatuor, causing the history of each piece to tip a bit forward and backward.

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