Coxe: Entretien

Program Note

Stephen Coxe (b. 1966)
Entretien (2018)—World Premiere

Stephen Coxe studied at Swarthmore College and Yale University, where his principal teachers were Martin Bresnick, Jacob Druckman, Ezra Laderman, and Gerald Levinson. He has received awards from the Aaron Copland Fund, Argosy Foundation, ASCAP, the Belgian-American Educational Foundation, Composers Guild, Friends and Enemies of New Music, and Meet the Composer. He has received commissions from American Voices, Musicians Accord, Peabody Trio, Weilerstein Trio, and New Orleans Friends of Music, Sequitur, and has been in residence at Yaddo, Ragdale, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Stephen is the composition program director for the Yellow Barn Young Artists Program, and has directed programs for young composers at Peabody, the Walden School, and the Putney School. Yellow Barn has commissioned many works, among them The Very Hungry Caterpillar for narrator, flute, and percussion (2004), Noch Ein Stelldichein for soprano and chamber ensemble, based on an unfinished chamber ensemble fragment by Arnold Schoenberg (2005), Bonnie Variations for two cellos (2010), A Book of Dreams for accordion, percussion, and piano (2011), Across the Universe for voice and piano (2013), and Gordon’s Garden Music (2014), an hour-long performance installation for multiple ensembles and recorded sounds, premiered at Hayward Gardens as part of the 2014 Yellow Barn Gala. Currently Stephen lives in Norfolk, Virginia, where he has teaching and administrative positions at Old Dominion University and the Virginia Governor’s School for the Arts. 

Entretien was written for the 2018 Yellow Barn summer season, and is based on musical fragments from Debussy’s unfinished opera after Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher”. 

Debussy worked on “Usher” from 1908 through 1917, leaving the opera unfinished at the time of his death save for a partial short score and sketches for a prelude, first scene, and part of a second scene. Debussy was his own librettist, providing roles for Poe’s unnamed narrator (“L’ami”, baritone, in Debussy’s version), Lady Madeline (soprano), Roderick (baritone), and the Doctor (baritone, only mentioned in the original short story). Poe’s original narrative tells of an urgent visit by its protagonist to a childhood friend, Roderick Usher, whose sister Lady Madeline is mysteriously wasting away in the decaying, and once esteemed, Usher house. Roderick, a painter and musician bemoaning all that will be lost of the Usher family upon the deaths of Lady Madeline and himself, continues to be possessed by chronic unease and nightmarish visions. Lady Madeline eventually dies, only to be resurrected in horrific fashion at the end of the tale: she appears at her brother’s door, bloody, after a night of grueling psychic horror for both Roderick and the story’s unnamed narrator. 

Debussy’s incomplete opera does not reach the moment of the story’s ‘denouement’, yet it provides much of the essential character for both Madeline and Roderick in an atmosphere of unsettled tension and foreboding, reflected in several repeating musical ideas in the vocal writing and in what would have been the orchestral writing (unrealized by Debussy).

In Entretien, the characters of Madeline and Roderick as expressed in their respective ‘arias’ provide the basic melodic material and the narrative dialogue for the piece. The main ideas, in paraphrase, are the following: Madeline’s opening aria, telling of a once noble house, pastoral and joyful; Roderick’s visions of Madeline on her deathbed, seeking both a connection with her and his apprehension about the end of the entire family; and ‘heartbeat’ style gestures with a menacing triplet figure suggesting the end of life and the inevitable destruction of the Usher family (both figures are presented as parodies of Debussy’s originals in my version). Debussy also uses a B natural-C natural tremolo motive in his opera to reflect apprehension; in Entretien the same figure is used, also as a B-C minor ninth to present the horror of loss latent throughout the opera and the Poe story. I have used Debussy’s music as a springboard for variation and reworking, hence the title ‘Entretien' (Interview), and in a few instances there are brief, nearly direct quotations. On the whole, the piece is a reflection and a remembrance, which in my view is the overall sentiment in both Poe’s story and of Debussy’s opera: an impending feeling of foreboding nuanced by visions of a brighter past, never to return. 

Below are excerpts from Debussy’s libretto for each aria paraphrased in Entretien: in order, Madeline’s opening aria [viola], Roderick’s aria [viola], and Madeline’s second aria [piano].

Madeline (a song for Roderick Usher in Poe’s original):
By the greenest of valleys,
By good angels tenanted.
Once a fair and stately palace -
Radiant palace - reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion -
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair.

Madeline … Madeline … a while ago I was asleep. But I heard … her voice awakened me … her voice, it was her voice … there is nothing like it in the world! It was her voice, I am sure of it. Where is she? Ah! I can’t go on anymore, I don’t want to … no! not that .. to see it no more! Always going to sleep feverish, only to awake in anguish. Torments - endless, endless, endless.

And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
And sparking evermore,
A troop of Echoes …