Copyright © 2017-19 by Jordan Kuspa

My last duchess

Composed in 2015

For baritone, bass clarinet, trumpet, and trombone

Duration: 8:00

Text: Robert Browning (public domain)

 

I've been fascinated by Browning's "My Last Duchess" for years, and had long ago attempted to set the poem to music. Something never seemed quite right about those earlier attempts, but I revisited the poem when I was presented with the opportunity to compose for loadbang, whose unique sound, flair for the dramatic, and intensity of approach all suggested they would be the perfect ensemble to bring off a musical setting of this poetic classic. In particular, I was inspired by Jeff's ability to make even abstract, plotless texts come alive through his vocal delivery, and I felt sure that he could find a way to fully inhabit the central character of this dramatic monologue, that of the imperious Duke, busy negotiating a second marriage contract, who during the course of his speech reveals the chilling circumstances that led to the demise of his last duchess.

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That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, 

Looking as if she were alive. I call 

That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands 

Worked busily a day, and there she stands. 

Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said 

“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read 

Strangers like you that pictured countenance, 

The depth and passion of its earnest glance, 

But to myself they turned (since none puts by 

The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) 

And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, 

How such a glance came there; so, not the first 

Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not 

Her husband’s presence only, called that spot 

Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps 

Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps 

Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint 

Must never hope to reproduce the faint 

Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff 

Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough 

For calling up that spot of joy. She had 

A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad, 

Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er 

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. 

Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast, 

The dropping of the daylight in the West, 

The bough of cherries some officious fool 

Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule 

She rode with round the terrace—all and each 

Would draw from her alike the approving speech, 

Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked 

Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked 

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name 

With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame 

This sort of trifling? Even had you skill 

In speech—which I have not—to make your will 

Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this 

Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, 

Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let 

Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set 

Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse— 

E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose 

Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, 

Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without 

Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; 

Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands 

As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet 

The company below, then. I repeat, 

The Count your master’s known munificence 

Is ample warrant that no just pretense 

Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; 

Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed 

At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go 

Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though, 

Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, 

Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

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First Performance: December 7th, 2015

The DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York, NY

loadbang:

Jeffrey Gavett, baritone voice

Carlos Cordiero, bass clarinet

Andy Kozar, trumpet

William Lang, trombone

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