Composer’s Log: Aug. 14, 2017

Writing these weekly updates has been an interesting addition to my compositional process.  One on hand, writing about what I am working on forces me to articulate the different challenges and approaches to solving them I am grappling with.  This in turn makes me think more deeply about those issues and (hopefully) is helping me create a better finished composition.  On the other hand, writing these posts also gives me a new sense of accountability for making regular progress, which is a mixed blessing.  For the most part, it is motivating, but on slow weeks, it can be a bit of a struggle to find something to write about.  The last couple of weeks have fallen in to that category, but I am happy to say that I am back in the swing of composing and am making good progress again.

This week, I have been moving on to some music for Irene. In previous posts, I referred to an “aria” for that character, which would reference Pierre’s big radium aria.  Aside from a brief excerpt of a duet for Marie and her daughter, I hadn’t written anything for Irene before this week.  And in turning to what I previously had thought of Irene’s moment to shine, I realized that this later “aria” is really less of an aria than a slightly longer turn in a conversation with Marie.  In fact, Irene doesn’t really seem to have an aria in the opera that could stand on its own.  She’s on stage for most of the opera, if not the whole thing (depending on how one handles her during the sequence between Marie and Pierre). But her music is always part of a duet with Marie: either short bursts back and forth in conversation or singing over each other in counterpoint.  I’m not sure yet if this is a problem and if it is what the best way to solve it would be—it’s definitely something I’ll be thinking about as I continue working, though.

In the section I was working on, Irene confesses her belief that their work with radium is causing harmful side effects.  This is something that Irene hints at in other places, but only at the very end of the opera is she able to clearly articulate her fears to Marie.  In doing so, she sings the following excerpt:

I’ve seen blisters on your hands.
My own skin sometimes peels.
My headaches come on quickly.
Too many of my assistants
have strangely broken teeth.

We are often nauseated.

This passage immediately seemed to me a foil to Pierre’s aria where he lists radium’s various health benefits.  Irene’s vocal line, shown below, thus references Pierre’s. It is based on the same motives and also adopts the rising half-step transpositions found leading up to the climax of Pierre’s aria. Additionally, over the course of the whole section, the accompaniment from Irene’s preceding exchange with Marie with transform into a variation of the driving accompaniment in Pierre’s aria before suddenly shifting back.

I’m not sure yet what I want to tackle next: the material that follows this excerpt is the conclusion of the opera, and I don’t have a completely clear sense how I want to handle that.  It’s possible I might leave that for another time and work on other sections, possibly continuing on from the aria where Marie recalls Pierre’s death.  Between there and the excerpt shown here, she’s got a couple smaller arias and one larger one, plus a good amount of dialogue with Irene.  Filling in some of that material should help clarify my thoughts on the ending.