A Contemporary Treasure: Argento: Peter Quince at the Clavier
The MHS Review 404, VOL. 12, NO.8• 1988
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As it happens, I first discovered the music of Dominick Argento when I bought the album of his 1971 opera Postcard from Morocco in a record store, brought it home, and put it on my record player, more out of a sense of duty to keep up with what was happening in American opera than with any particular expectation of enjoying it. Enjoy it I did, however; and that is how it has been for me ever since with Argento's music, whether it be To be Sung upon the Water of 1972, the lyrical treatment of Virginia Woolf's prose in the song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf of 197 4 (which received a Pulitzer Prize in 1975), The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe of 1976, or "the investigation into the Unusual and Violent Death of Aurelia Havisham" in the Dickens opera Miss Havisham's Fire, premiered by the New York Opera in 1979.
Argento was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1927. He won the annual composition prize for three years running at the Peabody Conservatory while he studied for his bachelor's and master's degrees in music there, got his PhD at the Eastman School of Music, and studied under such masters as Luigi Dallapiccola, Henry Cowell, Hugo Weisgall, Alan Hovhaness, and Howard Hanson. Since 1958, he has been quietly teaching music at the University of Minnesota (they named him Regents' Professor there in 1980) and ignoring every fad and fashion to pursue a musical star that is entirely his own.
On this new release, where Argento is represented by settings of poems by the late American poet Wallace Stevens and the ancient Roman poet Catullus, he proves once again that none of the usual tiresome yardsticks apply to his work; when he finishes with a text, his music has so thoroughly merged with it that one forgets such questions as whether it is tonal or atonal, progressive or regressive, eclectic or revolutionary. It becomes, as T.S. Eliot put it in his Four Quartets, "music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts."
Stevens' Peter Quince at the Clavier is, as Argento points out in his own notes for his album, "one of the finest poems ever produced by an American." In Argento's setting, it also turns out to be one of the finest settings of a poem produced by an American composer. He has been remarkably sensitive to all the implications of the text: the allusions to the story of "Susanna and the Elders" in the Book of Daniel, in which the old men lust after her while she bathes and condemn her to death when she refuses them her body; the curious reference to Peter Quince, the carpenter who performs in the "Pyramus and Thisby" comic interlude in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream; the very nature of beauty itself, "momentary in the mind" but immortal in the flesh.
This poetry, which also deals with the subject of music, is itself on the edge of becoming music. Actual music of the wrong kind might well have proved superfluous, but Argento's setting as a "sonatina for mixed chorus and piano concertante" is a contemporary treasure in its own right, especially as immaculately performed here by the Dale Warland Singers, a fine professional group from the composer's own Minneapolis/St. Paul territory.
In I Hate and I Love, Argento turns his musical attention to the poetry of Catullus. The text here deals with an affair between the Roman poet and a woman ten years older than he. What does he feel for her? Is it love or hate? Can it be both? "I hate and I love. Perhaps you will ask how that can be possible. I do not know; but that is what I feel and it torments me." The conflict and torment transcend time. So, in its choral treatment, with only percussion accompaniment, does Argento's noble but emotive setting.