Jacob Druckman, Prism

By Matthew Mugmon

Born June 26, 1928, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died May 24, 1996, in New Haven, Connecticut
Composed in 1979–80
Premiered on May 21, 1980 in Baltimore, with the Baltimore Symphony, conducted by Sergiu Comissiona
Performance Time: Approximately 22 minutes

Jacob Druckman’s Prism is perhaps best understood, at first, through the lens of a work Druckman admired: the Italian composer Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1968), which Druckman called “a masterful example of the general tendency to reach backwards and forwards simultaneously.” The third movement of Berio’s Sinfonia employs the scherzo of Gustav Mahler’s (1860–1911) Second Symphony as the backdrop for a dizzying array of sonic explorations. Composed twelve years after the Sinfonia, Prism, like its predecessor, carries its own blend of reminiscence and innovation. In Druckman’s case, the “backwards” is not just the operatic work of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century composers he quotes—Marc-Antoine Charpentier (Médée), Francesco Cavalli (Il Giasone), and Luigi Cherubini (Médée)—but the ancient myth of Jason and Medea, the subject of those operas. The “forwards” is in Druckman’s inventive use of the orchestra, what Bernard Holland in a New York Times review described as “timbral devices” that “whirl around us in Cineramic brilliance.” It is also, to some extent, in the idea of splicing together a composition out of old masterpieces, fascinating effects, and surprising juxtapositions, allowing Druckman to capture not the myth itself but what he called “the many-layered quality of the telling and re-telling of the story. It is a reflection on the persistent re-emergence of the myth that lies at the center of the new work.”

Far from another retelling of the myth, then, Druckman’s Prism views the myth, and the operas that use it as the subject, through a kind of musical prism. Prism also hints at a narrative shape of its own through a fairly straightforward, even conventional, three-movement format. In the introductory first (and shortest) movement, what Druckman called Charpentier’s “pageantry”—complete with regal brass motifs—emerges from and recedes behind a dissonant, mysterious orchestral wash. The mostly slow and atmospheric but also whimsical second movement follows Cavalli’s interpretation of the myth “as a tender and comic love story.” The pace quickens in the finale, which takes as its starting point the way Cherubini “drives relentlessly toward [the myth’s] tragic conclusion.”

Matthew Mugmon is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Arizona.

Written for


Sounds of the American Century