Opus Pocus

for Oboe, Clarinet, Soprano Saxophone, Bass Clarinet, and Bassoon

  • Genre
  • Commissioned by/written for
    Arundo Donax Reed Quintet
  • Year completed
  • Year revised
  • Timing
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  • 8
    known performances
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Opus Pocus was begun on June 28, 2011 and completed on July 16th of the same year. I had heard the Arundo Donax Reed Quintet give a recital the previous April, and impressed with their artistry, offered to write them a work. My interest was also piqued by the fact that there are few original works for this particular combination of instruments, and by the fact that Arundo Donax had won the Bronze Medal in the Senior Wind Division at the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition in South Bend, Indiana, and was planning a Fall tour. The title of the work came to me before I had written even a single note. As an inveterate punster, I felt that such a title would inspire me to create something novel. However, it was not until the entire first movement of Opus Pocus had been composed that the idea of basing each movement on a famous magician (or sorcerer) occurred to me. At that point, I expanded the number of planned movements from three to five to allow for more practitioners of this art to be portrayed. Since the first movement, "The Witch of Endor," was composed before it was titled, this is the one movement that does not consciously portray the person memorialized. Nevertheless, the music, given its unusual harmonies and mysterious aspects, might suggest to most auditors that there is some sort of sorcery being depicted. The story of the Witch of Endor is found in the biblical book of I Samuel, chapter 28, wherein King Saul, whose life was soon to be taken from him by the Lord, commanded her to bring up the spirit of the deceased prophet, Samuel. Whether she actually conjured up the spirit of the departed prophet is debated among theologians. The second movement, "Simon Magus" (Simon the Sorcerer) is also taken from Scripture, in this case the Book of Acts, chapter 8. Simon attempts to purchase power to bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit upon believers, and is thereupon condemned by the Apostle Peter. The term simony comes from this incident, and refers to the purchase of an ecclesiastical office. Simon was considered by some of the Church Fathers to have been the initiator of all heresy. The outer sections of this movement are the most tonal of the entire work, portraying Simon's pleading with the Apostle Peter-first for attempting to purchase a gift that could not be purchased, and then that the curse of the Apostle would be removed from him. In between these tonal outer sections is a dissonant section to suggest the true condition of the sorcerer's heart. "Merlin" is the slow movement of the suite, and looks back to the fictional magician often associated with the court of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. His character first appears, however, in the Historia Regum Britanniae, written ca. 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and is based on an amalgamation of previous historical and legendary figures. The movement is mysterious and subdued throughout, to suggest legend and facts obscured by the mists of time. Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz) was doubtless the greatest escape artist of all time. His mastery of this art is suggested by the mercurial lines in the various woodwinds in the fourth movement that bears his name, the drifting into and out of tonality throughout the movement, and the fact that this movement is the only one in which there is no quote in the bassoon part of the famous opening solo in Le Sacre du Printemps. The idea is that the quote has "escaped" from this particular movement, its presence being obvious to listeners in the other movements. The final movement, written in tribute to the most famous living magician, David Copperfield, attempts to suggest Copperfield's ability to seemingly make things disappear. He has, for example, made the Statue of Liberty disappear on national television. The form of this movement is ABRACADABRA, where the "R" stands for "repeat." Thus, each time the "A" and "B" themes come back, there are measures (in increasing numbers) that have disappeared, such that by their last iteration, there is almost nothing left. There is a chiastic aspect to the work: The Witch of Endor makes someone appear, balancing the ability of David Copperfield to make things disappear. Simon Magus attempts to escape from a sticky spiritual problem, while Houdini routinely escaped from "impossible" physical problems. Merlin, as the pivotal movement, combines fact with fiction. The chiasm extends to the opening of each movement, where the uppermost instrument, the oboe, begins the first movement, and the lowest, the bassoon, begins the second, and so on.

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