Ancient Letters : Concerto for amplified harpsichord and orchestra
by Elena Kats-Chernin (2017)
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The Ancient Letters are the first known documents of the Sogdian
people who lived across what is today Uzbekhistan, the place
where I was born. The letters dated from the 4th century were
discovered ca 16 centuries after being written, in an abandoned
watchtower, far to the east of the main city Samarkand along the
Silk Road to China.
1. "Tiger Cub": Two of the five letters concern a woman called Tiger Cub or Mewnai. Tiger Cub has not seen or heard of her husband for three years. He has disappeared somewhere along the Silk Road. She despairs for the years ahead. We will never know what did happen to Tiger Cub. I have written a portrait of this feisty, desperate, beautiful, deserted woman the way I see her. The harpsichord begins the movement alone. Sometimes I find that instrument to have a suspended, disembodied quality which can be used to expressive advantage. When the orchestra enter it is with unrelenting opposition to the more soulful first theme. The struggle between the two forces charges the whole movement; the harpsichord being the more human character, the orchestra representing the harsh and often barbarous reality of an uncertain life in a place that can be formidably glorious but savage too.
2. "Musk Trade": Trade is one of the main topics in the correspondence. The Sogdian travellers dealt in musk, silk and silver. Musk Trade is a movement in two distinct parts; the slow, aromatic Musk featuring harp and celeste alongside the harpsichord in a series of orientally dusted melodies, then the fast Trade of deal-makers, rush-hour and negotiations. Soloist and strings take up a marketplace tune based on an extended C minor 7th chord. This is buffeted by cameos representing the different industries; metal (chords), cloth (scales), spice (woodwinds with harpsichord clusters).
3. "Goodbye Samarkand": The city of Samarkand is one of the oldest in the world. It is hot, dry, remote. There is a real sense of displacement that haunts the Sogdian letters, these people are living yawning distances from families and usually with no real hope of going home, to Samarkand, 2000 miles away. In Goodbye Samarkand I have written a little ballad to home - the place, to paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, you can never go again. It is the winds that feature first in this movement. The melody came to me as I imagined looking back at a desert horizon and realising that life is different forever; a mix of misgivings, hopes and longings.
Instrumentation: Amplified harpsichord, flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn in F, percussion (2 players), harp, celeste, strings.
Duration: 20 min.
Contents note: 1. Tiger Cub -- 2. Musk Trade -- 3. Goodbye Samarkand.
Performances of this work
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