NOTES: SONG FOR ELIZABETH

I began Song for Elizabeth as a piano piece, working at the piano with daughter Elizabeth cradled in my arms the week after she was born.  The opening passage came to me immediately, and within 45 minutes I had sketched it out.  But after sketching the initial passage, I became stuck, and for approximately two years, I could not find additional material that fit to my satisfaction with the opening theme.

Although many composers experience episodes of writer's block, this was my most severe, and given my emotional attachment to the composition, it was difficult for me to work on anything else.  Finally, I reluctantly put the idea aside hoping for inspiration at a later time.

Shortly thereafter, I was approached by Richard Fiske, Music Director of the Salisbury (NC) Symphony to participate in an orchestral concert featuring composers with Salisbury ties. Although I had never written for orchestra, I did not feel that I could give up the opportunity.

In preparing to write a piece for the Salisbury Symphony, I began to think of Song for Elizabeth in orchestral terms, and a second theme came to mind immediately. This was similar to the experiences I used to have as a student at Duke University. On many occasions I would go to a piano practice room at the music building to compose, or as I might have said at the time, "make stuff up." When I ran out of ideas, I would move to the piano in the next room. Given its different sound and playing characteristics, new ideas would come to mind. In a given session, I might run thorough all the pianos in the building!

Looking back, what I learned from these experiences is that I can sometimes overcome episodes of writers block (and I have actually had very few), by trying to think of my compositions from a different angle or with different instruments.

Unfortunately, my first attempt at orchestral writing was a disaster, at least from my perspective. Song for Elizabeth became the first of three movements of Lyric Suite for Orchestra, written for the Salisbury Symphony, and in retrospect, only the third of these movements had any potential as a legitimate orchestral composition.  Although thinking of Song for Elizabeth in orchestral terms got me past my writer's block, it did not produce a particularly satisfying composition.

There were two problems with the orchestral version of Song for Elizabeth.  First, despite warnings from the conductor and my teacher, Robert Ward, I insisted on keeping the piece in the key of Db.  At the piano, Db had a much warmer feel than either C or D, and changing the key much further would have required changing the structure of the composition.  As I learned the hard way, it is very difficult for orchestral string sections to achieve proper intonation in flat keys, and the problem gets progressively worse as more flats are added, particularly in slow passages.

The second problem is that the opening passage of Song for Elizabeth was characteristically piano music, not orchestra music, and although portions of subsequent passages worked well in the orchestra, the movement did not achieve a uniform orchestral feel.

Some listeners may feel that some of the thematic material after the opening passage is out of character with first.  My sense, however, is that thematically, Song for Elizabeth captures the spirit Elizabeth growing from infancy to an energetic young toddler.

After the orchestral performance, I was not willing to put Song for Elizabeth aside and attempted to re-cast the piece as a piano composition. This didn't work well either, since much of the newer material was distinctly orchestral.

Finally I settled on the idea of "splitting the difference," arranging Song for Elizabeth as a work for small chamber ensemble, figuring that it could feature the piano in passages that where characteristically pianistic and feature the orchestral instruments in passages that were characteristically orchestral. Although this may not be my best composition, I think it has been cast with its best instrumentation, given its thematic material.

Although it would be nice to recreate the experience of holding Elizabeth in my arms as I sketched out the opening passage to her song, it would be very difficult. Today (written around 2000), Elizabeth is 15 years old, 6'1" and beautiful, but a little difficult to handle at the piano – and even more difficult to handle on the basketball court!