My Bowdoin College faculty colleague Robert K. Beckwith, who died in 1989, had great love for both gardening and opera. In composing A Garden for RKB, I have tried to derive my musical imagery from the former of these two, and my musical materials from the latter. After twenty-five years of working with Bob, I had more than a fair idea of his operatic preferences, and by inquiring of many mutual friends I learned which flowering plants and shrubs gave Bob particular delight. The resulting piece might be heard, then, as an interaction of metaphors and associations from two different worlds.
Each of the work’s three movements is meant to suggest a particular plant —not only a process of growth and development (a “flowering”), but also the audible result of that process. In addition, the music includes fleeting references chosen from some of Bob’s favorite operas. All the references for the opening movement—“Begonia”—derive from one Verdi opera, Otello. The scherzo-like second movement—“Heather”—is based on Wagnerian material, specifically fragments from the Ring cycle and Tristan und Isolde. (I should add, as a parenthetical aside, that the neo-Terry Riley/Philip Glass ostinati figures in this movement are deliberate. Bob Beckwith was a great fan of Riley’s In C, and agreed with me that there are prophetic hints of minimalism in Wagner’s Ring cycle!) Finally, the “Azalea” movement draws upon operatic material from two different composers, Mozart and Verdi—Don Giovanni and La Traviata.
On another level entirely, a musical motive drawn from the letters in Bob’s name (and the names of his immediate family members) functions as a cyclic sub-text running throughout the entire piece. This motive finally surfaces as the quasi-Viennese waltz which brings A Garden for RKB to its close.
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