A world only dreamed

by Matthew Whittall

Empty sheet

Matthew Whittall

A world only dreamed


A world only dreamed resulted from a series of encounters with the music and family of the late American composer George Rochberg (1918-2005), whose work in both music and writing has been a strong influence on my own. Reading Rochberg's memoir, Five Lines, Four Spaces in 2009, I was moved by the brief passages about his son, Paul, a precociously talented poet who died of a brain tumor at the age of twenty. Rochberg's grief was still palpable, present in a way that suggested he could barely bring himself to speak of it even many years later, a loss that resonated with me, having just become a father myself. After I posted a short comment about the book on my weblog, I received a very gracious letter from Rochberg's widow, Gene. Through our subsequent correspondence, I came to own a volume of Paul's poetry, and I was captivated by the richness and conciseness of his verses, almost haiku-like in both their brevity and the crystalline sharpness of their imagery. One in particular caught my attention, no doubt because its images of night, stars, sleep and eternity are recurring ones in my own work, and I resolved to set it in an upcoming work I was planning for my wife, the Estonian kantele artist Hedi Viisma.

The piece is a simple two-part form consisting of a prelude followed by a song. The fragmentary prelude, marked by quiet, nocturnal rustlings, is a dialogue between characters, with a sinuous, lyrical line in the alto flute contrasting a more detached, arching viola part. The kannel flits back and forth between these two worlds, commenting on them and slowly drawing them together. Eventually, enough threads are gathered to form a tapestry for the song setting, a quiet elegy for mezzo-soprano. I owe a debt of gratitude to Mrs Gene Rochberg, for her gift of her son's poetry collection and her kind permission for this use of it. A world only dreamed is dedicated to Hedi Viisma, who commissioned it for her and flutist Hanna Kinnunen's doctoral concert series, with the generous assistance of the Jenni and Antti Wihuri Fund and the Finnish National Arts Council.


afl, vla, mezzo, kantele


Chamber Works, Vocal and Choral Works


Hanna Kinnunen, alto flute, Riitta-Liisa Ristiluoma, viola, Hedi Viisma, kannel, Jutta Seppinen, mezzo-soprano, Helsinki, Finland, April 8, 2010.

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