Origins of “Walden at Evening”

“Horn and Song” is the theme of the IHS Symposium in Memphis. When I received a commission from host Dan Phillips to write a piece for horn and chorus, I had to readjust my thinking about combining instruments and chorus. In my choral music, the words usually came first, but this was to be a horn solo piece.

I inherited this commission from another composer, whose concept was a concerto with choral accompaniment, no words. With soloist Jonathan Boen, principal with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, I wanted to keep that concept. However, I just couldn’t go wordless; I needed a source of syllables, if not poetry to be sung straight out. So what words to use?

I turned to Walden by Thoreau for many reasons: I have a history of loving the work and using it musically, and Thoreau is a famous local author, which would represent New England at the international gathering. I constructed a poem from phrases in the chapter “Sounds,” where he describes Walden Pond at evening, with whippoorwills and frogs. This gave me words and sounds for sustained or repeated textures. In the first movement “Delicious Evening,” these choral textures alternated with and supported the horn’s gestures and cadenza flourishes.

Percussion, including vibraphone, adds to the atmosphere. This IHS Symposium spotlights Britten, in keeping with the theme of song. As I worked with my nighttime Walden nature sounds, I thought of the Serenade, with its night theme and wonderful scherzo arpeggios. My second movement, “Capriccio Notturno,” is playful, with a tinge of ominous, and full of choral frog sounds. The horn dances, lyrically, agitated, with energy. The woods, especially in spring, are not quiet at night.

Another text-related problem was the ending. After the night-time scherzo in the woods, I needed to stop wandering, and my source text didn’t have a conclusion. I wanted real words for the chorus. I found a short poem by Thoreau called “Low-Anchored Cloud,” which is the most transfiguring description of mist that I’ve ever read. It makes a fitting ending, with a focus on the chorus and words, and the horn playing an obbligato part. The result is a three-movement quasi-concerto titled Walden at Evening.

“Walden at Evening” will be premiered on Thursday evening, August 1, 2013 by soloist Jonathan Boen and the Memphis Symphony Chorus, conducted by Lawrence Edwards in Memphis TN. See for more information.

Originally published in Cornucopia, May 2013, newsletter of the Massachusetts Chapter of the International Horn Society. This text is also quoted on the IHS Facebook page

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.