4. Weary, with empty throat, stands Tantalus
Weary, with empty throat, stands Tantalus; above his guilty head hangs plenteous food; on either side, with laden boughs, a tree leans over him and, bending and trembling beneath its weight of fruit, makes sport with his wide-straining jaws. He tries no more to touch, he turns away his eyes, he tightly shuts his lips; behind clenched teeth he bars his hunger. Then the whole grove lets down its wealth, and the ripe fruits beckon from above. As his hands stretch toward the mocking gift, the whole harvest of the bending wood leaps up high, out of reach. Then comes a raging thirst, harder to bear than hunger. The poor wretch hurls himself at waves that motion to his lips, but they elude his grasp. Deep from the whirling stream he drinks but dust. —Thyestes 

The idea of writing for Baroque instruments came up because the original concept was for The Waking Sun to be paired with Membra Jesu nostri of Dietrich Buxtehude. That changed, but the concept for this piece stayed the same, and so a couple of textural gestures came to mind. Somewhere in The Waking Sun I wanted to have a violin duet. Tantalus provided the perfect opportunity.

The two violins encapsulate a bit of text-painting, the image of the two trees bending down over Tantalus, offering fruit lower and lower, then springing up before he can reach it. The duet is a strict canon at the third below, with each iteration slightly longer than the one before.

From Tantalus comes tantalize, of course, and one could hardly invent a more apt myth than this. Punished by the gods for stealing their ambrosia, Tantalus is bound in this place, and cannot escape. He is tempted above and below by attractions to his flesh. The music is static for the most part, mirroring his helplessness. Voluptuous harmonies grow with his hope, then evaporate.

There’s an old, out-of-favor word that nicely describes this condition. It is wretchedness. A theology professor once told me that it means not that you are as bad as you can be, but that you are as bad off as you can be. Tantalus is indeed a poor wretch.

18 Jun 2011. The Waking Sun. The Crossing, Tempesta di Mare. Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, 8 pm