MusicThe Berkshire Review in Boston

Jan Swafford, Chamber Music at the Boston Conservatory: listen to “They That Mourn”

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Composer Jan Swafford
Composer Jan Swafford

On Palm Sunday there was a remarkable Boston Conservatory concert of music by Jan Swafford. Swafford is widely known for his books on Charles Ives and Brahms, and The Vintage Guide to Classical Music. He is known locally also for many fine program notes and pre-concert talks for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Swafford has been writing music going back to the 1970s and has had performances in many places and won awards for this work. The recent concert centered around the cello, magnificently played—even heroically, considering the amount and intensity of the material—by Emmanuel Feldman, who was joined variously by his excellent colleagues in the Omega Trio, violinist Eva Gruesser and pianist George Sebastian Lopez. The program opened with a piece written just a few years ago for Feldman, In Time of War, a sober duo for cello and piano, with a prayerful ending. Next came Magus, for cello and electronic tape, a large odyssey-like piece going back to 1977 and since revised, where the “human” cello struggles with the out-of-control-seeming technological power represented in the synthesized sounds. Visions, hallucinations, episodes in various moods, time stretched and made material—much comes into play in this drama that feels, in a necessary way, longer than it is, long like a lifetime, as a dream can seem. Best of all, after intermission, was the piano trio They That Mourn, written in 2002 “In memoriam 9/11.” This beautiful and moving piece, all one movement, is spun from a four-note motive, rising for three notes and then falling, an oriental-sounding phrase of grief. This figure, varied and developed, allows what seems like memories of trauma at moments, memories of ordinary human life and human feeling at other times, and, most importantly, ongoing human feeling—we are human because we remember and mourn. There is much variety—midway a chorale-like passage, toward the end an episode in bright major-mode—but all derives from the basic material and comes back to that, all finally seeming like one long phrase. The deeply well organized music subsumes all, saves all, saves us who attend. Swafford’s music is sophisticated—original musical ideas, procedures of development and organization that know their Stravinsky, Bartók, Ligeti… But beyond being sophisticated (and as with the composers just named), melody, phrases, musical gestures of every kind take notably human shape, spring from the human, represent the human, identify music as human. And there is a grand transcendent drive to it. Swafford is a modern, even modernist, romantic—like his early hero and inspiration Charles Ives.

Charles Warren

About Charles Warren

Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film
history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School.
He is the author of “T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare,” and edited and contributed to
the volumes “Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film” and “Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Hail Mary:’ Women and the Sacred in Film.”

  1. michael fawcett


    Amazing, moving composition. You are not a pianist, as far as I know, yet
    there are passages that really impressed me. Good work!


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