A river to fill the silence began as a commission for a violin sonata from my friend Brandon Christensen in 1998. However, due to other projects, it was not until several months after the premature death in April 2001 of Brandon's mentor, the remarkable violinist and teacher Mitchell Stern, that the piece finally reached my work desk. After seeing so many of my close friends lost and bereaved at his death, I knew that the sonata upon which I was about to embark would have to become an elegy for a man whom I knew only slightly, but had liked very well.
The resulting work is highly fractured. I struggled for months with the issue of how, musically speaking, I could eulogize Mitch. It was a problem which finally tore open the hermetic, classical form I had originally envisioned and let in a flood of extramusical associations. Contrasts abound, from a classical sonata-form movement abruptly cut off in mid-development, to a dancelike section with strains of folk melody, reflective lyrical interludes, church bells and passacaglia-like variation sections over long pedals. In effect, the work acts as a musical basin into which flow various stylistic arguments, different elaborations of the same basic thematic material which combine into a torrent at the end. The piece may not add up to be greater than the sum of its parts, but rather becomes a fragmented reconstruction of a whole, like the shards of a broken vase glued back together. Rather than strictly mourning a man's death, the music was also an attempt to provide some consolation to those left behind. Perhaps, like the violin's central quotation of the Baptist hymn Down in the river to pray, it is when memory alights on a single, tender thought that we find solace after a great loss.
As I went down in the river to pray,
Studyin' about the good old way,
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way
Oh, sinners, let's go down,
Let's go down, come on down.
Come on, sinners, let's go down,
Down in the river to pray
© Matthew Whittall Instrumentation
violin and piano Category
Chamber Works Premiere
Brandon Christensen, violin, Zoe Browder, piano, Helsinki, April 24, 2003.
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