When Reason Sleeps, the Sirens Sing


An tone poem for large orchestra about the mythological sirens so vividly described by Homer.

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When Reason Sleeps, the Sirens Sing

2,picc,2,Eh,eb,2,bcl,2  4,3,3,1  T,3 perc  hp  cel  strings
Duration: 13′
Premiere: 1996, by the Minnesota Orchestra public reading, David Wiley, cond., Mpls., MN.
Manuscript score and parts on request.
Performance info: Contact DET

Program Note

The tone poem, When Reason Sleeps, the Sirens Sing, borrows its title from a 1960 painting by Max Ernst which I saw while wandering about the Alte Pinakotek in Munich: Die Sirenen erwachen, wenn die Vernunft schlafen geht. View the painting. It takes its story from The Odyssey. While the narrative may or may not be essential to an appreciation of the music, a few well-marked buoys may be helpful:

A gust of wind sets the voyage in motion, and a long-breathed violin melody accompanied by horn fifths seems to forecast smooth sailing. To a trumpet call, a windless calm falls. The sirens are heard, represented by the sensualists of the orchestra—viola and English horn—set apart from the rest. In Homer’s tale, Odysseus instructs his sailors to stop their ears with wax, and rope him to the mast, so that he may hear but not respond to the sweet song. In the music, an argument ensues between the forces of emotion (solo instruments in languid tempo, fragments of tune) and those of the will (brass, vigorous tempo), with the Sirens’ query becoming more insistent. In crisis, the winds of the orchestra take up the siren song. The voyage resumes with some difficulty, and the fair-weather violin theme returns, played mainly by the tuba. The Sirens fade as the stillness of the island, its “boneheaps of men rotted away,” returns.

The orchestra is essentially that of Strauss’s tone poems, with the addition of several mallet percussion and a bell-tree, which marks the entry into mythical “Siren-space.” When Reason Sleeps was the first orchestral work written after moving to Minnesota from Montana in 1989. It is dedicated to Dominick Argento.

Another tone poem: By Singing Light





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