New Year, new recording, part 3: “Advent”

Part three in a series on my new album, “Refracted Light.”

Introduction: I composed five chamber works based on stained-glass windows at my church, St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. In 2017, I recorded the project in the nave of St. George’s, where I collaborated with some of my close musical colleagues to record these compositions: the stories of creation, Daniel, Epiphany, the Crucifixion, and Judgement Day. I call this group of compositions “Refracted Light.” This recording has just been released on the Arts Laureate label and is available on all major platforms like Amazon, SpotifyiTunes and CDBaby.


The Crucifixion Window at St. George’s.

In 2012, I began to compose Advent, which, despite its name, is the companion piece for St. George’s Crucifixion Window. I was greatly moved by a poem of the same name by the American Poet Laureate Donald Hall (1928-2018). I wanted to provide a “Trinity” of variations for each of the three stanzas (three flexible interpretations based on the concepts of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost). Each stanza, therefore, has a set of three variations, making a total of nine statements of the melody first sung at the beginning by the soprano.

Text for “Advent

When I see the cradle rocking
What is it that I see?
I see a rood on the hilltop
Of Calvary.

When I hear the cattle lowing
What is it that they say?
They say that shadows feasted
At Tenebrae.

When I know that the grave is empty,
Absence eviscerates me,
And I dwell in a cavernous, constant
Horror vacui.

“Advent” from The Back Chamber by Donald Hall. Copyright ©2011 by Donald Hall. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Regarding the text, “rood” in the first stanza is a cross; “Tenebrae” in the second stanza refers to a Christian religious service celebrated during Holy Week marked by the gradual extinguishing of candles; “Horror vacui” in the third stanza literally means “fear of empty space” and usually describes artwork which fills the entire space with visual detail. The original version of this extended aria featured an extremely unsettling phase-shifting mixed-meter melody between trumpet and piano with soprano singing in the rests, in an effort to imitate the artistic meaning of “horror vacui,” but an alternative, lyric, ending proved more effective in the long run.

In May of 2018, I presented “Advent” at the International Trumpet Guild New Works Recital with the original performers, Tia Wortham, soprano, and Ben Keseley, piano.

Below is a video of us recording “Advent” at St. George’s.

“Advent” was published in 2018 by Balquhidder Music. You can purchase the music here.

“Advent” was reviewed in the Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians in October of 2019 by Jason Overall: Curtis “explores each impressionistic statement from a variety of perspectives, allowing listeners to follow along this journey. The music never abandons functional tonality, yet it has touches of sophistication that effectively undermine expectations. While piano is Curtis’s choice of keyboard instrument, the accompaniment could be adapted for organ quite well. Coloristic possibilities unique to the organ would more than make up for the timbral warmth of the piano. The aria may stretch the bounds of liturgical use, yet it would fit well within the confines of an Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols or other seasonal concerts.”

 

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