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Auden poem inspired Heggie to pen meditative symphony

Composer Jake Heggie, center, at a College of Music master class, 2011.Internationally renowned composer Jake Heggie’s Ahab Symphony was commissioned by and written for the College of Music.

While well known for his operas, especially Dead Man Walking and Moby-Dick, Heggie deliberately gave himself a new challenge in writing the Ahab Symphony: his first full symphonic work. Above and right, Heggie at a UNT master class in 2011.

David Itkin will conduct the UNT Symphony Orchestra and Grand Chorus directed by Jerry McCoy, with tenor Richard Croft, professor of voice, for the 8 p.m. April 24 premiere in Winspear Hall at the Murchison Performing Arts Center.

  • Enter to win a pair of tickets to the 8 p.m. April 24 concert in Winspear Hall at the Murchison Performing Arts Center. Send an email to InHouse with “Jake Heggie” in the subject line by 5 p.m. April 19. Winner will be selected at random from all responses and must pick up tickets before 5 p.m. April 24.
  • Buy tickets.
  • Listen live online.

Heggie discussed his efforts with Margarita Venegas, UNT News Promotions:

Why write this symphony?

Composer Jake Heggie at a UNT master class, 2011.I’d wanted to compose a symphony for awhile; I like challenging myself with new projects and had never created anything like this. Generally, I write operas and stage works that demand action. In a symphonic work, you can really go inside and meditate on singular ideas. 

The opera Moby-Dick (premiered at the Dallas Opera in 2010) represented a real evolution in my musical style. There was so much we couldn’t include in the opera that I was yearning to explore more extensively, and a symphonic work seemed the ideal way to do that. I’m very proud of the piece. Once again, (Herman Melville pushed me and I was forced to explore another shift in my own musical evolution.

What were the influences for the symphony?

While searching for texts for the piece, my friend and collaborator Gene Scheer, the librettist for Moby-Dick, came upon W.H. Auden's haunting poem “Herman Melville.” It is a beautiful meditation about how helpless we are in the world, and how little control we actually have despite our big dreams.

Melville created so many dynamic, resonant, indelible characters, yet he himself died anonymously: a customs officer in New York. Nobody had read his books for about 40 years. So I thought of juxtaposing that beautiful poem with parts of Ahab’s monologue from the last chapter of Moby-Dick

Ahab demands control of his destiny, even as he knows he’s going to his ruin. He rails against the universe. But, just before the end, he takes the time to stop and look around: to appreciate how beautiful the world is – how nothing has changed since he was a boy, nor since the time of Noah. Despite the wildness and torments of his life, nothing is different. Even on the most beautiful, unchanging landscapes, terrible things can happen. I thought it was a beautiful meditation for the process that we all go through sometime in our lives – why am I here, how can I control the elements around me, does my life matter?

What can the audience expect from this symphony?

I always write with the audience in mind. I want to challenge them the way I’ve been challenged with this work and by these thoughts, but I want to include them. I try to create work that welcomes them in and yet confronts them with the questions and conflicts that moved me to write.

The first movement, “Dawn,” is the most heavily influenced by Moby-Dick. There are direct quotes from the opera in that movement. And, then it was a brand new frontier. The second movement, “The Wind,” deals with us wrestling with the elements. We try to tell the tide which way to turn and the wind which way to blow: we both respect and abhor nature's ultimate ambivalence over our presence on the planet. The most aching movement is the third, “The Narrow Balcony.” And the fourth, “The Pieces,” takes a tone of yearning simplicity and lonely resignation.

How does it feel to be working again with faculty and students?

I am thrilled to be back, and I can’t believe it’s already been two years since the end of my (2011) residency. I made wonderful friends at UNT and learned so much from the students, faculty, and the whole experience.

I am so grateful to Dean (James) Scott for supporting me throughout this sometimes very challenging process. To have a friend like him to count on for perspective and guidance was terribly important. Since I first heard Richard Croft in 1996, I've had in the back of my mind that I would like to write for him one day. Hearing him recently in the (Metropolitan Opera)production of Philip Glass's Satyagraha confirmed that, so it is very gratifying to have that opportunity now. With a great team like Richard Croft, conductor David Itkin, Jerry McCoy, Richard Sparks and Dean Scott, I get honest reactions about what is working and what is not, so that together we can really make this piece the best it can possibly be.

(Representatives of UNT Press will be on hand  from 5 to 6 p.m. April 24 at the Murchison Performing Arts Center with the newly published “Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick: A Grand Opera for the Twenty-first Century.”  The  book is about the process of creating "Moby-Dick," which premiered in Dallas in 2010. Librettist Gene Scheer, author Robert K. Wallace and photographer Karen Almond will attend.)

Posted on: Wed 10 April 2013

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