Moonlight on a Midnight Stream
A Romantic Entertainment for vocal quartet and piano (1994) 34′
- Libretto by the composer, based on texts by Byron, P. B. Shelley, Mary Shelley, E. J. Trelawny
- Commissioned by The Schubert Club and Vern and Phyllis Sutton.
- Premiere—1995, by Jean Del Santo, soprano; Glenda Maurice, mezzo-soprano; Clifton Ware, tenor; Lawrence Weller, baritone; Margo Garrett, piano, Mpls., MN.
Invocation • Waltz brillante • Albé’s Song • A Ghost Story • The Castle of Chillon • Sailing to the Madhouse • Duet • Mutability • Shelley’s Immolation • Valediction
Moonlight on a Midnight Stream is not exactly a song cycle, nor is it a chamber opera, so I have called it an entertainment. The characters: poets Byron and Shelley, Shelley’s not-yet-second wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and her half-sister, who came to call herself Claire Clairmont. (Claire is a fascinating figure, a women who pursued Byron—who detested her—and gave birth to his child, living into old age and finding a central place as the former lover of a famous poet in Henry James’s Aspern Papers.) The legends which surround them are more fabulous than lives could be—flight to Switzerland to escape Mary’s father Godwin; their summer in 1815 on Lake Geneva, with excursions to castles and mountain valleys in the area; entertaining ghost stories which led to Mary’s novel, Frankenstein; years later, Shelley’s death in a squall off the coast of Italy, followed by the burning of his body on the beach, vividly re-imagined years later by Edward Trelawny. Other details enter into the score of Moonlight which have some basis in fact. Byron did indeed amuse his companions with songs from his travels in Albania. The waltz, which had invaded Vienna as early as 1754, had become a craze by the turn of the century. And there is an intriguing account of the pianist Steibelt in Prague who “had with him an Englishwoman whom he introduced as wife and who played the tambourine. Accompanying him with it, Steibelt’s friend so “electrified the gentlefolk that the wish likewise to manipulate this instrument stirred in all the ladies.” All of this makes for good entertainment, if not always accurate history.
The introspective Shelley stands at the center of the work as a sort of tragic hero, and his words are often sung by the other characters. The texts are culled from a variety of sources: three different poems, a letter to Thomas Peacock about the poets’ visit to the castle of Chillon, Frankenstein, Chapter V, Mary Shelley’s journal, and Trelawny’s Last Days of Shelley and Byron. And my own research, crossing one of Montana’s many Rock Creeks at midnight, in the company of friends, to catch the gushing, black water—and the moonlight struggling to be reflected off its oily surface.
Listen to a performance by the Ted Mann Vocal Quartet (Beth Swanberg, KrisAnne Weiss, Justin Montigne, Marshall Urban) with Laura Loewen, piano:
Recording appears by permission of The University of Minnesota School of Music.