This piece originally carried a different title than the current A Penumbral Eclipse. It also carried an additional fourth movement, my now single-movement work Horror Vacui. The more I listened to the work, the more I began to notice how out of place this finale was. The first three movements programmatically paint pictures of scenarios/concepts that carry both light and dark characteristics. Horror Vacui, however, did not continue this theme, as it was more of a depiction of Cenophobia, or the fear of empty spaces, and it’s manifestations in fugal form.
My decision to change the title came in December 2010, after I removed the fourth movements, and the current three explorations of the light-dark duality were remaining. During that month, I observed a total lunar eclipse with a few friends. The event was to be centered around the actual one hour or so period where the moon was being entirely eclipsed. For a few hours before however, the process began as the moon entered the Earth’s penumbra, a slightly less noticeable shadow. Every once and a while, we would look up at the moon and say to each other “Not yet,” meaning that the total eclipse has not yet occurred. For me, this brought up some thoughts about the way people tend to think in black and white terms, and often overlook the grey area that makes up the majority of our experiences. We have been conditioned to look for grand, climactic high points in our lives, as well as to lament the tragic ones. What we often miss are the millions of moments that fall in between the two; that make up the vast majority of our experiences. These experiences always seem to contain this duality of light and dark; good and evil; happy and sad, in some form. Each movement of this work deals with this duality, both musically and programmatically.
I. Nocturne ‘L’Inconnue de la Seine’
The title of this movement, translated as “The Unknown of the Seine River” refers to an unidentified 16-year-old girl whose body, in the late 1880’s, was pulled out of the Seine River. According to the story, a pathologist at the Paris morgue was so moved by her beauty that he had a plaster “Death mask” made of her face. Copies of this mask were made popular in Bohemian culture after 1900. The peculiar thing about this story is that there is a small grin on the girls face, something very peculiar for a suspected suicide victim. The famous French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune” is quoted in this movement.
II. Scherzo ‘The Dancing Plague of 1518’
The story for this movement takes place in the French town of Strasbourg. According to medical records, over 400 people began inexplicably and uncontrollably dancing in the streets. After a period of about one month, every person had died due to heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion. The wild idea that such an emotionally and physically cleansing activity as dancing would result in such a desolate end is musically represented by a short, demented scherzo, ending with a series of individual ritardandi as each member of the quartet succumbs to exhaustion.
III. Meditation ‘Hour of the Wolf’
The “Hour of the Wolf” (not to be confused with the 1968 Ingmar Bergman film) refers to the time of day in between night and dawn. In Scandinavian folk religion, it is said to be the time where most people die, and most people are born. The duality in nature of good and bad is shown with this belief, and is represented musically by a mysterious “shimmering” texture that is neither dark nor bright.
IV. Fugue ‘Horror Vacui’
The title of this movement is translated as “a fear of empty spaces” from Latin. The theory in physics, created by Aristotle, states that “Nature abhors a vacuum”, meaning that empty spaces would attempt to “suck in” gas and liquids to avoid being empty. Though this theory has been proven false in science, the idea lives on in a style of art in which the entire surface of a piece is covered with detail. To me, the texture of a fugue, though compositionally clear and understandable, has this aspect on a listener of being overwhelmed with detail, as if the composer were afraid of leaving empty spaces in the music. This fugue is, in a way, a satire of this dense-feeling fugal texture.
Written for the Tesla Quartet