Richard Danielpour — FEAST OF FOOLS, A Concertino for Bassoon and String Quartet


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.