Le Stelle (Les étoiles) (2004)

Serge Provost

string quartet, and vocal quartet

Commission: SMCQ, for the Hilliard Ensemble and the Bozzini Quartet, with support from the CCA

The desire to write a work on poems by Petrarch (1304-74) dates back to my days as a student at the conservatory in Gilles Tremblay’s analysis class, where we were introduced to Monteverdi madrigals, such as the extraordinary “Hor ch’el ciel e la terra” on a text by Petrarch. The year 2004 marked the seven hundredth anniversary of Francesco Petrarca’s birth, which I celebrated through a commission from the SMCQ, which allowed me to realize this project.

A first step in my compositional process was to immerse myself in the three hundred and sixty-six poems of the Canzoniere. Written, revised, and added to over a period of almost thirty-eight years, the work evolved over a period from 1336 until the end of Petrarch’s life, its first edition appearing in 1342.

The original impetus for this enormous collection, originally titled Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta (fragments of common subjects, as opposed to noble ones), was a meeting with Laure in Avignon on April 6th, 1327. The encounter with Laure literally bowled the young Francesco over, and proved an experience that would mark this tonsured, celibate cleric for life. In addition to being divided between overwhelming love and the pain of thwarted desire, he was also darkened by the disappearance of the object of his love. The Canzoniere is a poetic journal of sorts, tied together by the continuous themes of Laure, love, politics, memory, and poetry.

From this vast corpus of works, I chose five sonnets: “Le stelle”; “Benedetto”; “Il cantar novo”; “Non d’atta et tempestosa”; and “Oimè il bel viso”. Some of the poems were integrated in their entirety, others only in part. The choice was informed by a desire to create a sonic drama representing the evolution of love: contemplation, desire, and loss.

Thus the work constitutes the grouping together of five madrigals (in the style of Monteverdi), in a single work. The distribution of material between the vocal and string quartet arose out of need to create the effect of perspective: clear vocal writing is here wed to the contours, shapes and rhythms of the text and reacts spontaneously to its effects. This is a sort of foreground. The instrumental writing is more complex, as much from a structural as a semantic point of view. It establishes a general context, engages in reflection, and functions to create a less linear temporal dimension in the games that it plays with memory. It also creates echo effects for the sung text.

Notions of style and musical language preoccupied the entire compositional period of this work. The study of the madrigal “Non al suo amante” by Francesco di Bologna, the only known musical work written on a text by Petrarch by one of his contemporaries, provided me with a root from which the music grew in the same manner as a tree becomes more complex as it branches out and distances itself from its source. A few fragments of Bologna’s work may be found (like a magnetic memory) in the first few pages of Le stelle, particularly in the voice.

At the same time, this work derives from the concentrated, supple form of the sonnets, and above all the style they employ. Characterized by rhetorical gestures, numerous references to works of antiquity, and a theory of affects (that would become a fundamental element of baroque music, abundantly illustrated in the mature works of Monteverdi), Petrarch’s sonnets motivated me to develop a set of musical figures (a referential system linked to memory) that are defined to various degrees depending on the voice-string perspective, and are used to create cohesion within the ensemble.

Finally, Le stelle should not be viewed as a full accounting of the monumental Canzoniere. Through this work, I have only slightly disturbed its shroud, as in a dream. The commission for this work was made possible by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.

Serge Provost [i-05]

Performance