About this Piece
Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) was the son of a wealthy Greek shipping magnate who spent most of his life in Alexandria and Istanbul. He is best known for his poetic recreations of classic images of ancient Greece, and is one of my favorite poets. In 2008, I traveled to Alexandria, Egypt, where I was able to visit Cavafy’s apartment (now a museum), sit at his desk, and look through his manuscripts.
Since then, I have immersed myself in Cavafy’s poetry in order to prepare three separate works: Voices, commissioned by the Yale Glee Club in memory of my first conducting teacher, Fenno Heath; This delicate universe, a five-movement choral cycle commissioned by Conspirare and Craig Hella Johnson; and this choral ballet for chorus, string quartet, and harp – Approaching ecstasy.
For this piece, I chose to set eighteen of Cavafy’s highly personal poems about his life as a gay man in Egypt over a century ago. In these poems, there are vivid portraits of his lovers, depictions of his secret life as well as that of his friends, and expressions of fear, hope, remembered love, and excruciating beauty. These poems are found on the next four pages of this frontispiece.
The eighteen poems in this ballet are set in both Cavafy’s original Greek, and in my own English translation. Each English poem is sung a cappella, and is scored to be clearly and homophonically declaimed. Each Greek poem is accompanied by the instrumental ensemble, and these vignettes are meant to accompany the dancers, so they are more polyphonic and repetitive. In the first half of the piece, each Greek poem follows each English one; in the second half, each Greek poem precedes its English translation.
With 36 texted vignettes (18 poems in 2 languages) and 3 instrumental movements (the Prologue, Intermezzo, and Epilogue), there are 39 total movements in this 86 minute piece. It is a through-composed work, performed without pauses, with each vignette connected to the next through instrumental soli. This piece also traverses the circle-of-fifths three times, employing each key signature in one of three Arabic maqamat (equivalent to the Aeolian mode, Phrygian mode, and Suzidil or Shahnaz – the pitch set: A Bb C# D E F G#).
In addition to the linguistic and pitch symmetries in this piece, I have borrowed from Arabic meters as well. While each unaccompanied vignette is in standard 4/4 time (as are the Prologue and Epilogue), the remaining movements are composed in a symmetrically-arranged sequence of other meters: 16/8, 15/8, 13/8, 11/8, 10/8, 9/8, 8/8, and 7/8. I hope that these meters will inspire some compelling dance!