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In My Sky at Twilight (2002)

For solo soprano and 18 players or chamber orchestra

Version #1: solo soprano, piccolo, 1120/2200/2 percussion/2 piano (celesta)/harp/str.11110
Premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez conducting, at Symphony Center in Chicago, Illinois, 1 December 2002
Duration: 20 minutes

Version #2: solo soprano, piccolo, 1120/2200/2 percussion/2 piano (celesta)/harp/str. (approx.) (celesta)/harp/str.11110
Premiered on a Portrait Concert at the Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy at the Teatro alle Tese in Venice. Ivan Fedele, Director of Music, 5 October 2018
Duration: 20 minutes

NOTE: The wind, brass, percussion, piano (celesta) harp parts are identical in both versions. The string parts are not identical.


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AUGUSTA READ THOMAS - "...Words of the Sea...".


In My Sky at Twilight runs from 1:41-2:42

Program Note

Pablo Neruda's poem, In My Sky at Twilight (translated by W.S. Merwin) was the starting point of my research for texts to include in this composition. Of great concern to me was the sound of the words, which I wanted to be musical, graceful, and resonant.

You are taken in the net of my music, my love,
And my nets of music are wide as the sky.
My soul is born on the shore of your eyes of mourning.
In your eyes of mourning the land of dreams begins.

The music, which emerges in two large sections (Deeper than all Roses and Lament) can be heard as suggestive of a fantastic dream. There is an orchestral interlude separating the two parts. The words from Christina Rossetti's beautiful poem Echo, "Come back to me in dreams, that I may give Pulse for pulse, breath for breath: Speak low, lean low, As long ago, my love, how long ago," commence the Lament and set the stage for the entire second movement, which ends with quiet resolve.

The two opening texts, "Ablaze with desire," and "'O lyric love, half angel and half bird And all a wonder and a wild desire," establish the contrasting nature of the music: at time blazing, at times lyric. The music is fiery, colorful, elegant and bold; then, on a dime, it transforms into a tender, gentle and smooth sound world.

I am a firm believer that form must be the best reaction to the objects calling it into being. One cannot stuff a piece into an ABA form, like putting a square peg in a round hole. The aura and quality of the musical materials inspire the music into its asymmetrical form, however the music always reveals my ear's concern for contrasting colors and a detailed control over the flow, flux, proportion, and trajectory of the sounds.

I compose music that at times seems improvisatory and improvise music that at times seems composed. Hopefully the result is an "alive" "ardent" sound world. Nuance is essence for me. My scores are always highly detailed. The entire piece is harmonically rooted, although great attention is given to motive, counterpoint, and color. I write music intuitively, but always with my brain turned on. One of my main artistic credos has for a long time been to do with examining small musical objects (a chord, a motive, a rhythm, a color, etc.) and exploring them from every possible perspective. The different perspectives reveal new musical elements, which I then transform and which in turn become the musical development. Thus my works take on a kind of organic, circular, self-referential quality, while at the same time, they clearly progress forward.

Voice, bell, sun, spirit, prayer, stars, ceremony, sky, ritual are themes which have run through my music for years. I think of my music as lyricism under pressure.

IN MY SKY AT TWILIGHT is dedicated with admiration and gratitude to Pierre Boulez, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Christine Brandes, and William G. Simpson. I would like to extend a very special thanks to Henry Fogel, Martha Gilmer, Cliff Colnot, Matias Tarnopolsky, and Laura Pryzby.

William G. Simpson generously asked me to make a composition based on the theme: enduring love that spans the chasm of death. The result is IN MY SKY AT TWILIGHT, a collection of songs inspired by passion and love, commissioned in loving memory of Marilyn M. Simpson by her devoted family.

I am deeply grateful to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the privilege of being Composer-in-Residence and thankful to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for making possible this premiere.

Last year, in Paris, Christine Brandes premiered the solo soprano part in my large work DAYLIGHT DIVINE for solo soprano, chorus, and orchestra. She was absolutely amazing and I was eager to work again with her. IN MY SKY AT TWILIGHT was tailor-made for her voice.

— Augusta Read Thomas
November 2002
Chicago, IL


Conductor Pierre Boulez
Selected Reviews

"The other work on the disc is In My Sky at Twilight, a chamber-like piece that was premièred just two years ago. Boulez conducts it here in a blazing, virtuosic performance by the 18-piece Chicago MusicNOW Ensemble and soprano Christine Brandes. It's a passionate, ecstatic, tragic composition on the topic of love. Thomas has picked, excerpted and seamlessly strung together 16 poetic fragments, representative of three different millennia and many different parts of the globe. They include an anonymous love lyric from Ancient Egypt, Sappho and Pindar from Ancient Greece, a poet from ninth-century Japan, Gerard Manley Hopkins and other from nineteenth-century England, and Pablo Neruda and e.e. cummings from the twentieth century. These are grouped to make two contrasting narratives — a perfervid movement flushed with sensuous love, and a quieter second movement dealing with loss and mourning but also, very movingly, with love that survives the scythe of death. So a particular dimension of human experience is at once universalized in the chosen excerpts, personalized in the single soprano's intense subjectivity, and rendered audible in her heightened, phatic vocalizing as well as in the rich sonic sonority imagery of the orchestral score. The work needs a soprano of consummate ability — and it has one. Brandes is quite wonderful, singing almost continuously through the work's 19-minute duration, and doing so with warmth, power, precision and fine control of vocal timbre. There are surely few of her generation with greater skill, or with superior mastery of her elected idiom." — Christopher Ballantine, International Record Review

"...a rhapsodic work, its headlong rush tempered and refined by Thomas' impeccable ear for matching text and music." — Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun Times

"...a finely honed song cycle..."— Andrew Clements, The Guardian, London

"Thomas, a prodigious talent, is the most accessible ambassador of the new modernism, and the piece, a fierce and jagged take on the love poetry of Sappho, Neruda, and Flaubert, among others, shines with passion and color." — Russell Platt, The New Yorker Magazine

" of the finest achievements of a rising star." — Peter Grahame Woolf,

"...textural translucency and harmonic refinement are hallmarks of this composer." — Richard Whitehouse,

"...positively voluptuous settings of lines taken from many poetic sources illustrating the endurance of love." — Stephen Pettitt, Evening Standard, London

"The orchestral music is original and nicely radiant, the word-setting sensitive and lucid." — David Murray, The Financial Times, London

Soprano Christine Brandes

"Thomas' In My Sky at Twilight, a collection of texts about love and loss, was no less intense, but her palette was broader and its passion more wild. Brandes often rode triumphantly with the full ensemble, her expressive voice plunging and soaring amid the constantly shifting, glowing textures. In My Sky at Twilight is a rhapsodic work, its headlong rush tempered and refined by Thomas' impeccable ear for matching text and music."

"Christine Brandes is the superb soprano soloist (for In My Sky at Twilight), unfurling Thomas' jagged, passionate melodies with controlled abandon and bringing a haunted radiance to poetic texts that range from Sappho to Pablo Neruda. Thomas' instrumental writing, so often full of unabashed wonderment and universe-embracing gestures, receives an intense, pristine performance from Boulez and his 18 musicians." — Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun Times

"...euphonious and resonant..." — Adrain Jack, The Independent, London

"In My Sky at Twilight is hauntingly beautiful and well worth hearing as an example of the very personal way in which one of the more gifted voices in contemporary composition engages with love poetry through the ages. The lyrical, expressionistic vocal lines, with their ecstatic leaps and lamenting descents, thread these disparate texts into a richly varied tapestryŠ No composer could ask for performers more proficient or committed than Pierre Boulez, Christine Brandes and members of the CSO."

"...Thomas' "songs of love and passion" work by accretion — layering a colorful, often sensuous array of sonorities from 18 strings, winds and percussion under the ecstatic leaps and lamenting descents of her lyrical, expressionistic vocal lines. Thomas' texts jump across the centuries, forming a poetic patchwork." — John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

"Thomas' settings are appropriately fervent and hot-blooded, with flashing, tumultuous gestures couched in a distinctively expressive brand of dissonance. There are passages of searing beauty but nothing even remotely sentimental or clichéd. Best of all, the piece is unceasingly engaging on an emotional level; every phrase — vocal or instrumental — is filled with meaning. The orchestral colors Thomas draws from the expert eighteen-member MusicNOW Ensemble are fresh and arresting, forcefully layered but with a neo-classic transparency. Pierre Boulez at the helm contributes mightily to the immaculate clarity of the performance. Soprano Christine Brandes, for whom the work was composed, gives an agile, virtuosic and earnestly human performance." — Joshua Rosenblum, Opera News

"Boulez...led the premiere of Thomas's work and listening to the electrically bright, percussively scintillating instrumental texture of In My Sky at Twilight, the affinity becomes clear. The surge of energy that begins Thomas's piece is as arresting in its own way as the explosion that ignites, say, Pli selon pli. ...[her] style of text-setting is...traditional and...expressive...The work's structure is ingenious, too. Thomas has selected 16 lyric fragments spanning virtually the entire history of poetry and woven them together so that the seams essentially disappear. The music takes shape from the texts' progression of moods and styles, and the result sits halfway between a traditional song-cycle and a dramatic cantata. Very strongly recommended." — Andrew Farach-Colton, GRAMOPHONE

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