Symphony for Steven Millhauser

ENS.2011.1 | 30′
4 Oboes, 4 Trumpets, 4 Violins


1. Fantasiestücke (J. Franklin Payne)

2. Märchenbilder (August Eschenburg)

3. Nachtmusik (Edmund Moorash)

Steven Millhauser is my favorite living writer. He possesses a magical ability to combine the fantastic, the fairy tale and the crepuscular with our shared (un?)consciousness of the American experience, and in such extraordinary and lyrical works such as Dangerous Laughter and Enchanted Night the writing itself sometimes seems to break into song. I have already composed two works inspired by his books—Little Kingdoms and From the Realm of Morpheus—and eventually I intend to write an opera or ballet based on his aforementioned novella Enchanted Night, but in this instance I wanted to try and directly evoke specific stories and characters.

However, that is not to say the movements depict those characters, precisely, nor rehash the drama of the plot, but instead hopefully suggest the mood, atmosphere, and drama of Millhauser’s Miniature Masterpieces. Each of the Symphony’s three movements has both a descriptive title and a parenthetical subtitle. The German-language titles are meant to suggest the kind of nineteenth-century Romanticism that so often figures in Millhauser’s work and has inspired my own, particularly that of Schumann, Brahms and Mahler (although of course my music sounds nothing like theirs). The subtitles name protagonists from Millhauser novellas: J. Franklin Payne from The Little Kingdoms of J. Franklin Payne and Edmund Moorash from Catalogue of the Exhibition in Little Kingdoms, as well as August Eschenburg from the eponymous work found In the Penny Arcade.

Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces) is fast, made of tiny, rapidly changing cells that distort and transform in the manner of the amazing animated films Payne spends his life making. In Märchenbilder (Fairy Tale Pictures) the music ticks like irregular clocks to suggest Eschenburg’s puppetry, notes sounding woodenly amidst strange suspended silences. Nachtmusik (Night Music) is slower still, attempting to describe the night-world of the story and Moorash’s eerie paintings while also taking into account the mercurial nature of the painter’s character, brief musical moments suddenly transfigured into something else altogether.

Symphony for Steven Millhauser is the third in an ongoing series of Pocket Symphonies (“symphonies” in the Stravinskian sense of instruments sounding together; “pocket” in the way the Graf Spee was a “pocket” battleship), and lasts about half-an-hour.