Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
David K. Gompper
First Committee Member
Lawrence N. Fritts
Second Committee Member
Third Committee Member
Fourth Committee Member
We remember Penelope as the faithful wife of the eponymous character from Homer's Odyssey, which focuses on Odysseus's ten-year journey home following the ten-year Trojan War. Despite the outwardly happy ending of Odysseus's return, Penelope is a tragic figure defined by her fidelity if little else. In my telling of Penelope's story, I explore the emotional landscape and loss of identity when one is reduced in such limiting ways and unable to speak for oneself in any other terms than love and devotion to another.
Penelope, for soprano and large chamber ensemble, is scored for flute, oboe, bass clarinet (doubling on clarinet), bassoon, horn in F, trumpet in C, trombone, two percussionists, piano, soprano, two violins, viola, cello, and double bass. This ensemble is diverse enough to offer a great range of contrasting--but also complementary--colors while small enough to allow clarity of individual parts.
The piece consists of three movements:
I. Be still, my heart, my heart, be still
II. I do
Twenty Long Years
III. I need him
I wish I could remember
The three movements mark stages of Penelope's decreasing sense of self. The first portrays falling in love characterized by metric ambiguity, rhythmic complexity, and a spectrum built on a B1 fundamental given in the double bass. The second consists of Penelope's vow of fidelity, which is then challenged by Odysseus's abandonment for war. The final movement consists of Penelope professing her love and need for Odysseus once again. But now that twenty years have gone by, those feelings and memories are fading. The music returns to the B fundamental in the last section. But where B had been the fundamental for falling in love at the beginning, now the spectrum conveys a sense of tragic permanence: all Penelope can do is utter Odysseus's name, slightly morphed in each incantation via varying IPA syllables. Though the audience may know the ending to Homer's poem, my piece ends on any day before Odysseus's return: the drama for me lies in the unknowing.
Liminal processes in music intrigue me and so I have implemented various liminal techniques throughout the piece. At the beginning of the first movement, for example, the piano has a regular eight-beat-plus-one-eighth-note "pulse". That is to say I do not expect a pulse to be felt, per se. Instead of a perceived periodicity, I suspect a listener will hear long tones of indeterminate lengths.
I use the term literally (as in subliminal) in the section "I wish I could remember". Penelope tries, but fails, to recollect a concert she and Odysseus attended before the war. In the music I quote pieces by the composers she is incorrectly recalling, thus externalizing her failing memory.
One other liminal process I use often in Penelope is the process of timbral morphing. This term pertains to the process wherein one instrument seems to morph into another. In measure 25 of "Be still, my heart, my heart, be still" the double bass harmonic blends into a cello which then is blended by violin II and bass clarinet. This type of orchestration projects a state of intermediacy such that I suspect the listener may not accurately identify the instrument(s) being heard. This technique occurs in the last movement in measures 106-107 where the oboe subsumes Penelope, as if mistaking her identity for the woodwind. These liminal processes help contribute to the transition of Penelope's emotional state from gain to loss.
Penelope, song cycle, soprano
vii, 70 pages
Copyright 2014 William E. Huff, Jr.
Huff, Jr., William E.. "Penelope." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2014.