Notes on the Opera

Jon Deak was born in Hammond, Indiana, on April 27, 1943. He grew up in an artistic environment – his father was a sculptor, his mother a painter. He himself has worked in sculpture. But music seized his attention; he studied double bass and composition at Oberlin, Juilliard, the University of Illinois and as a Fulbright Scholar, taught at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia, in Rome. The greatest influence on his work has come from Salvatore Martirano and John Cage and from the Soho performance art movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s. A prominent instrumentalist, Jon Deak was for many years the Associate Principal Bassist of the New York Philharmonic. As a composer, he has written over 300 works and has had his music played by Orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony, the National Symphony and the New Hour Philharmonic. His Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, The Headless Horseman, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. His music may also be heard on several TV series and many recordings. Spending much of his professional life as a performer rather than as an academic has no doubt contributed to his interest in what is known as “performance art” – a creation that involves more than simply the notes on the page, that comes alive only in the person of the executants.

Of course, all music is really a performance art; the printed score is not the work, but only a blueprint of it. But Jon Deak’s works, as we have seen in these concerts, are performance scores in a different sense; the work has a visual and theatrical element that transcends the customary relationship of pitch and rhythm. They are a kind of “Story Theater,” to borrow the name of the 1970s that produced elaborated versions of fairy tales in which actors began by narrating (as outsiders observing the story), and then gradually became the characters they had been describing. Similarly, in Jon Deak’s many “concert dramas” (the term he has come to prefer for this kind of work), there can be soloists who both narrate and enact the story, and the instrumentalists themselves take part in various ways, both by word and sound.

Deak will often turn to an old story – whether folk tale or, as here, a work of literary fiction. Other examples in his output include The Ugly Duckling and The Bremen Town Musicians, and Lucy and the Count (based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula). All make use of speech rhythm turned into music. The words of the tale become music, which sometimes takes over the storytelling entirely and sometimes supplies the background to the declamation. The instrumentalists evoke words “woven into the music as a sound event.” As the composer explained, he is sometimes “more concerned with the sound event than with the meaning of the words.”

A Christmas Carol is scored for flute, clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), horn, harp, percussion, violin, viola, violoncello, and contrabass. It is the longest of these musical narratives. It also took the longest time in composition. The idea for the project first arose in 1986, partly through the mediation of Christopher Kendall. But it did not get beyond preliminary sketching, “probably,” as the composer explained, “because the time wasn’t right for me.”

“Then Jack and Linda Hoeschler approached Christopher Kendall and me about rekindling this project; it turned out to be a big piece – and they have been very patient! As I worked further on it, my point of view changed. I started adapting the original libretto, which was written for me by Isaiah Sheffer, and as I continued to work on the piece, I made more and more changes from the first version, so now the libretto is essentially by me, though it retains some of Isaiah’s work, and of course we both based what we did on the Dickens novel. The piece turned out to be a work for baritone and chamber ensemble because I felt that it was best to have just one person up there. I think it works perfectly that way because, in this story, all the characters come out of Scrooge’s head – the whole drama takes place within his head. If we had a lot of characters there, it could be didactic: society putting pressure on Scrooge to reform. But this way it’s internal, depicting his own struggles. That’s why I changed the title to something that sounds rather Dickensian in style: The Passion of Scrooge or A Christmas Carol.”

The piece is cast in two acts. During the first we are introduced to Scrooge and his departed partner Marley, who comes as the first Christmas Eve ghost to warn Scrooge that he must change his grasping greedy ways. Although our virtuoso baritone soloist will embody both roles of Scrooge and Marley, various instruments within the ensemble provide close emotional underpinning to specific roles: the contrabass (at times aided by the bass clarinet) to Scrooge’s angry, injured self; the cello to Marley; the viola to Bob Cratchit; and so on. The harp embodies the ghost of Christmas Past, the horn as Christmas Present, and spectral strings and effects create the role of Christmas Future. The second act introduces these three ghosts of Christmas who confront Scrooge, provoke his passion, and help him accomplish his increasingly urgent transformation. And finally, then, we can have some urgently needed fun!

The composer offers this information for anyone who is curious about the long-extended process of composition and the possible change of style during that time: roughly the first three minutes of the piece as it stands were composed in 1986, the next ten minutes in 1996, and the remainder of the score in 1997. The music of Scrooge and Marley, those outcasts from human warmth and expression, operates with tone rows or segments of tone rows, while the remaining characters (and, gradually, Scrooge himself) are more tonal, even romantic in character. Scrooge is constantly testing new self-images, and his music is constantly changing, though it is built out of a half-dozen different motives, all of them interrelated.

The Passion of Scrooge was commissioned by Jack and Linda Hoeschler in honor of Inge Cadle and in memory of Don D. Cadle. The score is also dedicated to the composer’s mother, Mary-Ellan Jarbine.