The Masters on the Movies (chorus)

Those familiar with the poetry of Richard Howard know his penchant for speaking in the voice of other people, historical figures such as Cosima Wagner, John Ruskin, Oscar Wilde, Verdi, Toulouse-Lautrec; he even dramatizes a conversation between John Milton’s daughters as their father dictates Paradise Lost. “Outrageous ventriloquisms,” Howard describes these poems. So when I first read The Masters on the Movies, I could see that Howard was at it again, this time assuming the personae of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Willa Cather, each a master at creating narrative and character and each of them commenting on, via Howard’s fanciful ventroliquism, fictional characters that inhabit the silver screen. (I have set three of the five parts. The full poem can be found in Talking Cures, Turtle Point Press, 2002.)
Though these texts are marvelously inventive, in setting them I worried about how to engage the listener who had never seen (or didn’t remember) these movies; how much of Howard’s poem would be understood, especially when his words are not read to oneself but sung, and sung at a rate determined not by the listener but by the composer and conductor? Since what the Masters have to say will likely give more pleasure to the listener familiar with the movies on which they comment, I decided to assign lines of dialogue strategically to a small group of chorus members who, in some sense, are asked to “play” the movie characters. These lines are intended to jog the memory of a listener who has seen these movies, and to tell the movie’s story in as few words as possible to those who have not.
The piece, then, is divided into three overlapping sonic layers: the three Masters (James, Conrad, Cather) as soloists; the small group of actors; the chorus. And since my work for voices is often shaped as much by the sound of a word as by its meaning, I have assigned an unusually complex role to the chorus. They must not just incorporate the personalities of the masters and movie characters; it is up to them to convey, with words and the sound of words, such non-semantic entities as state of mind, foreboding, sense of time, or memory. In short, they take on the role of the orchestra in an opera; without them the characters are vacant, the drama non-existent.

The Masters on the Movies was commissioned in 2006 by Hobart and William Smith Colleges for their extraordinary chamber chorus, Cantori.
The group is directed by the incomparable Robert Cowles.

Score available through American Composers Alliance (BMI)

It is 1885, the year Henry James published The Bostonians, and Howard imagines what James might have made of the movie Now, Voyager — in particular the frumpy Miss Charlotte Vale, a depressed Boston Brahmin who, under Dr. Jaquith’s care, escapes her domineering mother, embarks on a Caribbean cruise and meets the love of her life, the charming, handsome – and married — Jerry Durrance. The trip is a success: Charlotte is “metamorphosed” from ugly duckling to a swan, “odorous / with erotic reminiscence.” (Musically, the metamorphosis is depicted by a chain of suspensions, beginning in one key and ending in another.) What “chiefly glows” for James is that Charlotte is now a “Changed Woman,” who “understands when she is spoken to.” Charlotte not only recites from Whitman, as the good doctor taught her, (“Now, Voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find,”) but she obeys Whitman’s imperative and begins to take charge of her own life. As Howard’s James concludes: “Even if, my dear, / we don’t reach the sun, we will at least / have been up in a balloon.”


Joseph Conrad’s dark tale of political intrigue, The Secret Agent, was published in 1907, and Howard imagines how Conrad might have reacted to the 1937 Frank Capra classic Lost Horizon. Since in The Secret Agent an innocent boy, Stevie, is blown to bits by an anarchist’s bomb, Conrad will have none of Shangri-La or its population of utopianists (the choral introduction). His disgust even spills over to his outright condemnation of movies in general (“… affording nothing more / in the way of art / than a flickering distraction to dolts / condemned to sit in darkness, mental life / utterly suspended, watching patterns / of pretense gibber and squeak before them.”) Except, that is, for the one scene where seemingly young, pretty Maria leaves Shangri-La and “becomes before your eyes a ruined hag.” Howard’s Conrad contemplates how “instantaneous and incredible / that human matter / could accomplish such disintegration / without passing through long lasting pangs / of inconceivable agony.” (This musical passage also depicts a transformation, though not the gradually shifting tonal metamorphosis of Charlotte in Now,Voyager, but one more abrupt and dissonant.) Maria, like Stevie, has become a metaphor for life itself: we’re here one moment and gone the next. Life is lived in an instant. Or as Howard’s Conrad concludes: “… ages of pain / can be lived between two blinks of an eye.”

In 1934 a second movie version of Willa Cather’s novel A Lost Lady was released (the first was made ten years earlier) and Cather, after seeing it, is reputed to have forbidden any more sale of her work to Hollywood. The movie tells the tale, effective in its own terms, of a queen whose love for a foreigner is so unpopular with her xenophobic subjects that she is forced to abdicate. But poet Howard creates a Cather impatient with dumbed-down screenplays, and her warm reaction to arguably Garbo’s best performance as the Swedish queen is overpowered by her annoyance that the movie avoids all matters of Christina’s impressive accomplishments, such as her friendship with Descartes, or any of her astute political decisions. (Cather’s line “I am and ever shall be / emulous of the young queen’s embracing / a practice so much in accord with her / aspirations (and her accomplishments)” becomes the central and recurring musical motive of the piece.) Howard’s Cather, who confesses that her “own imaginative knowledge is of loss, / the consequent action of what I write / is of loss as well,” finds a “grain of truth in one moment:” the movie’s most famous scene where Garbo, eyes closed and arms stretched out as if she were blind, tries to memorize the quaint, rustic room she has shared with her doomed lover Don Antonio.

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The Masters on the Movies

Cantori, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Robert Cowles, director