The second set I performed at the Cicada Consort Marathon Benefit concert featured a short piece I composed in 2014 as part of the set Royal Portraits entitled "Count Belisarius (The Basilica Cistern)," in between Diary of a Madman by Pavel Kopecky and Petites Variations by Nicolas Verin. As with the previous set selections from literature were provided at the concert as a substitute for program notes. They are included below. In the case of Verin, I've included the composers and/or styles he is referencing in his different variations.
Diary of a Madman by Nicolai Gogol
Kopecky begins his piano piece based on Gogol’s short story with the pivotal diary entry, “April 43rd, 2000,” when the protagonist finally goes around the bend. I provide the preceding entry as a contrast and because Kopecky’s opening seems to evoke the ponderous nature of this entry, which is then followed by the ‘epiphany’ of April 43rd.
Excerpt: "December 8th
"I was about to go to the office but various reasons and considerations held me back. I couldn’t get that Spanish business out of my head. How could a woman inherit the throne? They wouldn’t allow it. Firstly, England wouldn’t stand for it. And what’s more, it would affect the whole of European policy: the Austrian Emperor, our Tsar, … I must confess, these events shook me up so much I couldn’t put my mind to anything all day. Mavra pointed out that I was very absent-minded during supper. And, in fact, in a fit of distraction I threw two plates on to the floor, and they broke immediately. After dinner I walked along a street that led downhill. Discovered nothing very edifying. Afterwards I lay on my bed for a long time and pondered the Spanish question.
"April 43rd, 2000
"Today is a day of great triumph. There is a king of Spain. He has been found at last. That king is me. I only discovered this today. Frankly, it all came to me in a flash. I cannot understand how I could think or imagine for one moment I was only a titular councilor. I can’t explain how such a ridiculous idea ever entered my head. Anyway, I’m rather pleased no one’s thought of having me put away yet. The path ahead is clear: everything is as bright as daylight.
"I don’t really understand why, but before this revelation everything was enveloped in a kind of mist. And the whole reason for this, as I see it, is that people are under the misapprehension that the human brain is situated in the head: nothing could be further from the truth. It is carried by the wind from the Caspian Sea. …"
The Secret History by Procopius
I had imagined excerpting Count Belisarius by Robert Graves for this short piece I composed in 2014, but then I came across the perfect passage in Procopius’ Secret History to capture the sense of intrigue and deception so central to palace life in sixth century Byzantium.Procopius was the trusted secretary and advisor to General Belisarius and as such he chronicled and glorified the achievements of the Byzantine Empire in History of the Wars and Buildings. However, in this “Secret History” he unleashed a torrent of criticism on the Byzantine rulers, Justinian and Theodora, and laid bare the most unseemly plots and intrigues.
Excerpt: "It was not long before Belisarius suffered another blow. The plague that I described in the previous narrative was rampaging through the population of Byzantium. Among those struck was the Emperor Justinian, who became very ill indeed; it was even stated that he was dead. The story was spread about by rumor and carried right to the Roman camp. There some of the officers declared that if the Romans in Byzantium set up someone else of his sort as Emperor over them, they would never put up with it. But the unexpected happened, and before long the Emperor recovered; thereupon the officers of the army flung accusations at each other. Peter the general and John, nicknamed ‘The Guzzler’, insisted that they had heard Belisarius and Bouzes talking in the way I have just mentioned. These criticisms, the Empress Theodora alleged, had been directed by their authors against herself, and she could not contain her indignation. She instantly recalled them all to Byzantium and held an enquiry into the report. Then without notice she summoned Bouzes to her private apartment as if to consult him on some matter of the utmost importance.
"There was a system of cellars beneath the Palace, secure and labyrinthine, and suggestive of Tartarus itself. In these she habitually kept locked up any who had incurred her displeasure. Into this hole Bouzes was flung in his turn, and there, though the descendant of consuls, he remained, forever oblivious to the passage of time. For as he say in darkness he could not himself make out whether it was day or night, and he was never allowed to speak to anyone else. The man who tossed him his daily ration of food met him as beast meets beast, neither saying a word. Everyone took it for granted that he had died at once, but to mention his name or to say a word about him was more than anyone dared to do. Two years and four months later, stared at him as if he had come back from the dead. For the rest of his life the unfortunate man suffered from bad eyesight, and his general health was very feeble.
"Such was the treatment meted out to Bouzes. Belisarius, although none of the charges was brought home to him, was at the instigation of the Empress deprived by the Emperor of the command which he held and replaced by Martin as General of the East. Belisarius’ guards and men-at-arms, together with those of his personal retainers who were trained fighting men, were, on the Emperor’s orders, to be divided up between some of the officers and Palace eunuchs. These drew lots for them and shared them, arms and all, among themselves, as each man happened to be lucky. Many of his friends and other old helpers were forbidden to associate with Belisarius any more. A pitiful, private citizen in Byzantium, almost alone, always gloomy and melancholy, in continual fear of death by a murderer’s hand. Learning that he had accumulated great wealth in the East, the Empress sent one of the Palace eunuchs to bring it all to her."
Verin links the theme to Thelonius Monk, but I hear Leonard Bernstein (specifically "Cool" from West Side Story)
Variation I: Boulez
Variation II: Two-voice canon
Variation III: Boogie-woogie
Variation IV: Mussorgsky
Variation V: Chopin etude
Variation VI: Schoenberg/Webern
Variation VII: Bach chorale
Variation VIII: Steve Reich
Variation IX: Nino Rota (composer for Fellini films)
Variation X: free jazz improv