I – Largo e calmo (The Jester Ponders the Meaning of Life)
II – Vivace giocoso (The Jester Learns A New Dance)
III – Adagio misterioso (The Jester’s Cohorts Save Him from The Dungeon of the Ice Princess)
IV – Con moto, ben misurato (The Jester and Company Charm and Tame The Great Serpent)
American composer Richard Danielpour (born 1956, in New York City), is one of a new generation of composers who delights in writing music that is accessible for an audience, while still having substance. “Part of the great joy in writing music is because you’re communicating not just to people who like to hear nice sounds, but you’re dealing with human psyches as well,” he explains. “You’re not just dealing with ears, you’re dealing with ears and hearts and minds when you’re putting across music as a composer. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing an opera, or a concertino for bassoon and string quartet that deals with the bassoon as a kind of archetypal character of a jester or a fool.”
Danielpour’s compositions range from chamber music and song cycles to concertos, symphonies and ballet. The San Francisco Symphony commissioned his Second Symphony (“Visions,”) and his Cello Concerto that was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma. Danielpour also wrote Song of Remembrance for the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. In addition to composing for the world’s major orchestras and soloists, Danielpour teaches composition at both the Curtis Institute and Manhattan School of Music. This fall he plans to being work on his first opera, to a libretto by Toni Morrison, though he is quick to point out, “I’ve been an opera composer in disguise all these years.”
An example of that is Feast of Fools, not only because the titles of the individual movements suggest a story line, but also because the way he writes for the solo bassoon could be compared to the way some of the great bel canto opera composers, such as Bellini, wrote for the human voice. “That’s a great complement,” he says. “Composers like Bellini — and Chopin — are sort of overtly beautiful on the surface, but then you discover there is a lot beneath the surface, in terms of the way things are put together. We’re living in an age where, in the same vein, it’s often considered that if you’re not cynical, you’re not smart. I think that sometimes carries over musically, that if the music isn’t ugly, it’s not intelligent. The greatest example of this, of course, is Mozart. This is the simplest music on the surface, and in some ways, it’s the most complex music beneath the surface.”
Feast of Fools was commissioned by bassoonist Stephen Walt who premiered the work in August, 1998 with the Muir String Quartet (today’s concert will be the work’s West Coast Premier.) When Danielpour received the commission he remembered that, as a very young child, he had confused the words “bassoon” and “buffoon,” and the piece began to take shape after he had a dream about a jester. The piece is dedicated “To the Jester.”
“The character of the fool or the jester is something I’ve always been very interested in,” the composer says, “because the fool, in medieval history and in folklore, is the one who is allowed to speak the truth without being punished for it. A little bit like artists at various times and places. ”
Danielpour asked the titles of the individual movements be printed at the end of the movement, rather than the beginning (“not unlike the Debussy preludes”) because “It’s important that you hear the piece for what it is, but there’s also a little dramatic idea attached to it. I wanted there to be an element of fantasy and playfulness that pervades the piece, not unlike The Magic Flute. This one is a comedy, not a tragedy. I hope there is a child-like quality to the piece, without it being childish.”
The work is in four movements, but varies the traditional order, with the first and third movements being slower, more contemplative, and the second and fourth movements being much more extroverted. Throughout, the bassoon represents the jester.
“In the first movement, I wanted those opening cannons to have the feeling of something formal, in a sort of late Renaissance, early Baroque tradition, that would invoke commedia dell’arte,” Danielpour explains. “In the second movement, with all the pizzicato strings, I remember having the image as I was writing it of the scene in Magic Flute where Papageno has his magic bells to ward off Monostatos, that feeling of creating a pleasant spell with lighthearted magic. For the third movement, I was thinking very much of the equivalent of a pastel watercolor, rather than something that would be in oils. It would be in a softer kind of veiled hue. And in the last movement I was thinking of a certain kind of Middle Eastern music that might flavor it.”
The last movement begins with a rising melodic line in the strings that is remarkably similar to their pizzicato opening of the second movement. Given the movements’ individual titles, does the musical similarity suggest perhaps that the Jester takes the new dance he learns in the second movement and uses it to charm and tame the great serpent? “Absolutely,” Danielpour says. “In a way, what the Jester is doing in the last movement is thumbing his nose at death, because death has no power over him.” And the third movement’s Dungeon of the Ice Princess? “Any individual, or archetype in mythology, has an Achilles’ heel. The jester’s great weakness is the beautiful princess, the temptress. It’s another archetype in the shadows of that movement.
“If I could talk to the audience before a performance, I would probably say that this music is, in some ways, a reaction to all the overtly serious, overtly ugly music I’ve heard in the last 20 years. Yes, life is serious. Yes, there’s a lot of darkness in the world, but if you only see the darkness, if you miss the lightness, then you’re not really seeing it all. It’s a balance. This work in particular, as well as a number of others I’ve written, including the Violin Concerto, is a response to all the ugly music. It’s my way of saying, ‘Enough, already!’ ”
This article appeared originally in the program book of the San Francisco Symphony and is used here by permission.