Happy Voices (1984)

By David Del Tredici

Written for the concert The American 1980’s performed on May 22, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Happy Voices is a fugue, the subject of which is in two halves. The first–for strings–is motionless, poised; the second–for woodwinds–a slither of chromatic movement. The interval of the tritone permeates this theme. Unlike the traditional fugue, in which the opening subject is almost without exception a single voice, my subject consists of two voices moving in constant rhythmic unison. With the second statement of this subject, a counter-subject is heard in the violas. Based on repeated octaves, its emphasis of triple meter in contrast to the duple meter of the main subject is crucial to the rhythmic vitality of the piece. A nervous, unstable, almost keyless harmony characterizes the music. This effect, created in part by a persistent use of sequential modulation through the circle of fifths, causes one key’s tonic too quickly to become the next key dominant, through a dizzying number of changes. As a result, the ear “mistrusts” what it momentarily hears as stable, seeking reassurance, rather, in a harmony of key that does not move so quickly. despite this frenetic, quirky motion, another quite jazzy theme, clearly derived from the fugue subject, makes a strong appearance. It is not until a motif from Quaint Events unexpectedly reappears as lyrical relief from this obsessive, chattering movement that the ear is appeased, reoriented–like meeting an old friend in a crowded, unfamiliar street.

In its first Happy Voices appearance, the cantabile and gracefully flowing antecedent is answered by a rude double-time consequent. In its second appearance, the process is reversed. All the while, fugal particles whirl through the texture, bombarding this new-old theme while interrupting its successive appearances. Only in its third presentation does the Quaint Events motif seem to right itself, restored to the balanced proportion and length that it had originally enjoyed.

This achieved, all the implacable activity hesitates, then gradually disintegrates. The opening fugal subject is presented in shorter and shorter segments, the woodwinds falter, and strings drop away, leaving only a solo violin haltingly playing the repeated notes of the opening motif. This is, however, only the calm before a storm: forces again quickly gather and, borne by the largest crescendo of the piece thus far, we arrive at the quodlibet, presented thunderously by the whole orchestra. “Quodlibet,” as defined by a musical dictionary, is “an unlikely, even surprising, combination of diverse themes.” In this case, not only are two of the Happy Voices themes combined, one atop the other, but the surprise comes with the realization that they fit, as well, above a grandly expansive theme from Quaint Events.

A new lyrical theme appears, almost casually, as the music briefly calms. A faster version of the quodlibet section returns and it, in turn, grows still faster. As the excitement mounts, the briefly glimpsed lyrical melody takes on a more and more insistent, even ecstatic prominence. This theme, too, is combined into the quodlibet matrix. (Quodlibetissimo!) However, at this point in the fugue, when one theme has struggled to the fore, the other motifs, like a gang of howling furies, are not far behind, below, or above, seeking to wrest it from its sovereign place. Every possible contrapuntal device is now given full, exuberant play and, at length, with trumpets proclaiming victoriously the theme associated with Alice in Part I of Child Alice, the climax of the movement arrives.

From this point on, the energy gradually subsides; the intense rhythmic pulse relaxes. The harmonic movement, still slitheringly chromatic, slows. After a portentous roll on the timpani, the music comes finally to rest on a long-held A-flat minor chord. Harps embroider a fragile texture, mysterious winds rise, while horns solemnly proclaim a tritone melody.

The last dying notes of the horn melody are picked up now by the violins, which give it new vigor. Ceaselessly, above and below this theme, woodwinds and brass chatter the opening fugue motif. This perpetuum mobile grows and grows. After a grand climax, the music softens, though the momentum never slows down. Suddenly, breathlessly, it all vanishes.