A Celebration of the Music of Steven Gellman


‘Musings’ for Piano Trio:

Commissioned by the Gryphon Trio who gave its premiere performance at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival in August of 2009.

Like my Piano Quartet (2004) this Piano Trio is in 4 movements. Whereas in the earlier work the movements are more extended and developed, in this piece they are very condensed, almost like a sequence of miniatures.

The introductory movement presents the “motto” – the main motif, which will be developed here and in each of the following sections. The second movement is a short Scherzo (complete with a miniature “trio” section).

The third movement has a particular meaning for me. Much of this work was composed in late 2008, which was the centenary of my teacher Olivier Messiaen’s birth. That year I participated in several panel discussions devoted to Messiaen and I attended many performances of his music, most memorably the Canadian premiere of his only opera “Saint Francois d’Assisi” in Montreal.
This movement is like a “cantique” in which I have married his style with mine; it is dedicated
“a Olivier Messiaen pour son centennaire”. It is a simple heartfelt song for violin solo accompanied by piano chords repeated in some of his favorite Greek metres.

After a cantabile Cello solo, the Finale unfolds very exuberant and positive energies which rush to their conclusion – ending with an ethereal echo of the piece’s main motto.


Musica Eterna:

Winter – Spring 1991: Living in nature, engaged in peaceful meditation, I heard this very gentle and healing music; at first appearing as simple short motives, gradually unfolding into a continuous music where melodic patterns revealed and repeated themselves for awhile then transformed into others.

By day this inner music spoke of the voices of nature, at night it became the song of the stars. This music stayed with me for weeks, always repeating and transforming. Afterwards I wanted to share the experience. My only compositional task was to condense this material into a piece of 15 – 20 minutes, which meant having the musical patterns repeat only a few times before moving on. (I have never tried this, but I believe the piece could be effectively extended into a longer version simply by allowing the patterns to repeat several more times before changing, and this would make a suitable piece for a meditation session of 45 to 50 minutes.)

This music really has nothing to do with “modern music”; rather, with its simple modal-tonal melodic nature, it seems to me to belong to many times and places: a music that could appeal to people from long ago as it would to people today or into the future. Hence its title: Musica Eterna.


Piano Quartet:

The Piano Quartet was composed for Musica Camerata Montreal (a Radio Canada commission). It was completed in 2003 and given its premiere by Musica Camerata in Montreal in April 2004. It has been performed several times since in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and at the music festivals of Prince Edward County and the Agassiz in Winnipeg amongst others.

The work is in four movements:

  1. Introduction: The music begins vigorously with an energetic introduction which presents the main motivic material of the entire work. This is repeatedly interrupted by cadenza-like solos in the strings which change the mood, gradually ushering in…
  2. Elegy: A lamentation which expresses profound loss and grief in a sorrowful song.
  3. Scherzo: In the wake of the Elegy a nocturnal Scherzo with a somewhat Spanish flavour and explosive climaxes leads us out of the grief.
  4. Finale: In an Arch-Rondo form, the musical ideas presented throughout the piece are here further developed and integrated. A bouncy Allegretto first theme alternates with a more lyrical chorale-like melody. After a slow and reflective middle section these themes return in reverse order to bring the music to an energetic conclusion.

This work is dedicated to my wife, Cheryl.

Portrait of Steven Gellman by Cheryl Gellman.


Trikaya:

Commissioned by the McGill Contemporary Music Festival in 1981, Trikaya was premiered in Montreal in March 1982.

Trikaya is a Sanskrit word meaning: Tri – three, Kaya – bodies, planes, levels of existence. These three are: Nirmanakaya– body of form, physical universe; Sambhogakaya – radiant or energy body, celestial or astral plane; and Dharmakaya – body of pure universal law, unmanifest and invisible source of all existence.

This work is essentially a Sonata-form movement with three themes (representing the three kayas).

Piano and tam-tams open the piece with a heavy procession of chords representing Nirmanakaya. Immediately following this is the music of Sambhoga kaya: violin, Eb clarinet and vibraphone playing independently in 3 different tempos, representing the lightness and freedom of this plane. For Dharmakaya the most appropriate representation would be pure silence; however I have chosen an archetypal music emerging out of the silence: a progression of pure fifths and fourths by piano and vibraphone, the clarinet providing the fundamental D and the violin echoing in high harmonics. There is a subtle relationship between the melodic motives of the Dharma- and Nirmana Kayas.

These three themes are then developed through dialogue and interaction . The recapitulation features the simultaneous re-exposition of all 3 themes (ff), and the music of the Dharmakaya returns to bring the piece to a peaceful resolution.


Universe Symphony:

A vast symphonic “Spacescape” in Five Movements combining full orchestra with live electronic sound:
Composed 1984-85
Premiered by the Toronto Symphony and the Canadian Electronic Ensemble conducted by Andrew Davis at Roy Thomson Hall in January 1986.

    1. Space:
    “Emptiness is forming; form is emptying”
    The work opens with a musical evocation of Space – music of mystery and reverence. The elements of the piece gradually emerge and unfold, taking tentative form only to dissolve and transform again, eventually culminating in the Main Theme at the movement’s end.

    2. Ponderings:
    A primeval world dominated by a short, insistent motif (like an idée fixe) which weaves itself in and out of the entire movement. Ponderings, enigmas, mysteries of creation….

    3.Lyric Interlude:
    A short Intermezzo with a human, lyrical nature. Subtitled “Reminiscence” it evokes other times, other places.

    4.Scherzo:
    This is the dramatic centre of the symphony – a driving, energy-raising symphonic Scherzo. Here the orchestra imitates and develops the synthesizers‘ main idea: a pulsating rhythm which pervades the entire movement. The music here captures some of the spirit of “rock music”, but the working-out is rigorously symphonic. Out of the momentum of the Scherzo comes an improvisation by the solo synthesizers. Eventually the music calms and the “pondering” motives return to provide a transition into the Finale:

    5.Transformations:
    The final movement completes an arch in the overall structure of the symphony. Earlier themes return and transform one into another in reverse order. A prayer-like chanting rhythm (mantra) invokes the Main Theme, now fully developed by the orchestra and synthesizers. As it fades away we again hear the music of the opening, and the symphony ends in space as it began.

    This work is dedicated to All Beings in aspiration for World Peace.

    Steven Gellman


Viola Concerto:

I began composing my Concerto for Viola and Orchestra in March, 2003.

The work flowed very well and the first 2 movements were finished in draft by early July. The Finale occupied the rest of the summer and autumn and the work was completed in full score by early 2004. The Viola Concerto follows upon my Piano Quartet and shares some of its emotional atmosphere as well as one theme (in the Finale of both).

The first movement, ‘Andante con Moto: Flowing’ unfolds in a large Sonata-Arch form.

The mood is established right away in the opening bar over which the Solo Viola introduces the first soaring theme. A passage with rising string glissandos serves to usher in the theme’s reprise: this time in full with a rich orchestral accompaniment.

The second theme is darker, more desolate and is also played by the soloist over a background of distant timpani rolls. A development ensues based on both these themes which leads to a climax out of which the soloist performs an energetic cadenza which eventually ushers in the first theme in its final development.

The second movement is an Adagio. Over muted string harmonies a solo English Horn sings an introductory melody .The Solo Viola responds to this with its own lyrical melody. A more impassioned middle section ensues which develops these themes in dramatic dialogue over a swirling string texture. The return is more peaceful; eventually the swirling figures come back to provide a coda ( like an ‘Amen’).

After these two expressive and mostly introspective movements the Finale enters with a shock. This movement, Allegro Vivace, is fast and very energetic. Solo Timpani state the main “ostinato” theme which is taken up by pizzicato ‘cellos and basses over which the soloist unfolds its own fast and furious virtuoso runs. Ponderous low brass blasts out a second theme in longer notes. The movement unfolds in a combination of Rondo and Sonata form with hints of elements of the first movement mixed in. After all this energy the solo Viola eventually brings back the more reflective music of the opening movement which leads into a slow and expressive cadenza. The Allegro Vivace returns and re-establishes the energetic mood and after a fast final solo cadenza the music rushes to its conclusion.


Love’s Garden:

Love’s Garden
A “Symphony of Songs”
for Soprano and Orchestra (1987)
[apologies for the sound quality of this recording – it is the only existing recording yet of the orchestral version]

This Song-cycle celebrates the theme of Love in its variety : Spiritual and romantic. It consists of four songs, two poems by Kabir (a Sufi poet) and two by Rilke.

  1. I Hear the Song of His Flute (Kabir)

    I hear the song of his flute
    and I cannot contain myself!
    The flower blooms though it is not spring
    and already the bee has received its invitation.
    Here in the Garden of Love
    The bee has received its invitation.

    The sky roars and the lightning flashes,
    the waves arise in my heart.
    The rain falls… and my heart longs for my Lord!

    Where the rhythm of the world rises and falls
    there my heart has reached;
    There the hidden banners are fluttering in the air.

    My Heart is dying – though it lives!

    A song of ecstatic praise for the Creator and His Creation.
    The soprano reaches a climactic high point with the words: “and my heart longs for my Lord!”
    and the full orchestra responds with a richly expressive melody.

  2. Woman’s Lament (Rilke)

    So like a door
    which won’t stay closed
    My moaning embraces
    open in sleep – again and again
    Oh nights of woe.

    Outside grows the garden
    gently in the moonlight
    and the blossoms dim my window
    and the nightingale is not in vain.

    This song expresses the woman’s loneliness and yearning for love.

  3. Dance My Heart (Kabir)

    Dance my heart, dance today with Joy!
    The strains of Love fill the days and the nights with music
    and the world is listening to its melodies.

    Dance my heart, dance today with Joy!
    Mad with Joy!
    Life and Death dance to the rhythm of this Music.
    The hills and the sea and the earth dance.
    The world of Man dances in laughter and tears.

    Dance my heart, dance today with Joy!

    Why put on the robes of a monk
    and live aloof from the world – in lonely pride?
    Behold! My heart dances in the delight of a hundred Arts
    and the Creator is well pleased!

    The music of this song is a joyous dance: rhythmic, percussive and vibrant with Life.

  4. Love Song (Rilke)
      – dedicated to my wife, Cheryl

    How shall I hold my soul
    that it may not be touching yours?
    How shall I lift it then above you
    where other things are waiting?

    Oh, gladly would I hide it with some forgotten thing
    in darkness – in some remote and silent spot,
    where it will not vibrate
    when your depths are vibrating.

    You and me,
    all that touches us though,
    brings us together like the player’s bow,
    who out of two strings
    draws ONE voice.
    Across what instrument have we been spanned;
    And what violinist holds us in his hand?
    Oh! Sweetest Song!

    A bitter-sweet love song:
    In the middle the orchestra unfolds a passionate melody (reminiscent of its earlier melody in the first song) expressing the power of love which overcomes the poet’s resistance.
    This melody then returns at the end carrying the singer into the mystery of love:
    Oh! Sweetest Song! ……