Stephen Cronin: Program Notes

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Blow (1993)

blow1 /blou/, n., 1. a sudden stroke with hand, fist, or weapon. 2. a sudden shock, or a calamity or reverse. 3. a sudden attack or drastic action.

blow2 /blou/, v.i., 1. (of the wind or air) to be in motion. 2. to move along, carried by or as by the wind. 3. to produce or emit a current of air, as with the mouth, a bellows, etc. 4. Music. a. (of horn, trumpet, etc.) to give out sound. b. Colloq. to play on any musical instrument, or sing, usu. with other musicians. 5. to make a blowing sound; whistle. 6. to breathe hard or quickly; pant. 7. Colloq. to boast; brag. 8. to depart. 9. Zool. (of a whale) to spout. 10. Colloq. to ejaculate; experience orgasm. 11. (of a fuse, gasket, light bulb, radio valve, tyre, etc.) to burn out or perish; become unusable. -v.t. 12. to drive by means of a current of air. 13. to spread by report. 14. to divulge (a secret). 15. to drive a current of air upon. 16. to clear or empty by forcing air through. 17. to shape (glass, etc.) with a current of air. 18. to cause to sound, esp. by a current of air. 19. to waste; squander. 20. to fail in something. -n. 21. a storm with a high wind. 22. an outcrop of discoloured quartz-rich rock; sometimes thought to indicate mineral deposits below. 23. Colloq. rest

blow3 /blou/, v.i., v.t. 1. to blossom; bloom; flower. -n. 2. a yield or display of blossoms. 3. the state of blossoming.

from the Macquarie Dictionary (Macquarie Library Pty Ltd: Sydney, 1982)


Carmina Pu! (1992)

Curious about what goes on in the head of a stuffed bear?

It could be argued that Winnie the Pooh is a definitive example of the Renaissance Man (er . . . bear). Not just a non-sexist, emotionally unencumbered gentleman (um . . . gentle ben?) and a scholar (an expert in Apiary), but his quiet spirituality and deceptively simple way-of-being has attracted an unknown number of followers.

A.A. Milne wrote about Pooh in the now famous tome, Winnie the Pooh. That volume alone has had an inestimable influence in the development of several generations and its enduring spiritual significance was highlighted in Benjamin Hoff's The Tao of Pooh. (Although this work is quite scholarly, the easy-reading style commends it to the lay person as an essential text in the discovery of Pooh's teachings.)

As a religious strategist, Pooh revealed his genius by having A.A. Milne's book translated into Latin by Alexander Lenard in the late 1950's. His foresight was remarkable. Pooh had correctly predicted that Vatican II would dump Latin in favour of colloquial English thereby causing mass disenchantment. Lenard's translation offered disgruntled Roman Catholics an alternative.

Although fluid in membership and usually quite invisible in the broader community, followers of Pooh can be quite formidable when mobilised. The best example in recent Australian history occurred during the 1970's when the very vocal and hard-core Friends of Pooh lobbied the Melbourne print media to oust the rebel Disneyfied version of Pooh. Although it was a long and bitter fight with both sides proving intractable at times, all ended peacefully (which is what Pooh would want) when the dailies agreed to run unadulterated Pooh.

These days Pooh is guarded carefully by The Trustees of Pooh Properties (ToPP). ToPP went to considerable lengths to determine whether Stephen Cronin (a confirmed non-believer) should be permitted to use the songs of Pooh in this present work. Remarkably, although not to their surprise ToPP discovered that, because of his research into Pooh's teachings, Cronin's hard-nosed agnosticism had softened and that, indeed, he has become a friend of Pooh.

So what does go on in the head of a stuffed bear?
Perhaps it is best to observe the converted.


Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1989) was dedicated to and premiered by the pianist, Kevin Power. The demanding piano part represents a shift from the piano's traditional role in a concerto, and rather than engaging in a typical dialogue with orchestra maintains an almost continuous thread of sound throughout. The relative dramatic importance of the orchestral part varies from simple accompaniment to outright assertion. Throughout, the piano seems to maintain itself as an independent voice.

This independence is further reflected in the tight structural underpinning of the concerto, which is based on two modal structures, a Principal Mode (B flat, C sharp, D, E, F, G sharp, A) and an Auxiliary Mode (B, C, D sharp, F sharp, G) and their transpositions to each note of the Principal Mode. These two modes are used in strict opposition; when the piano is working with the Principal Mode, the orchestra will be exploring the Auxiliary Mode, and vice versa. Thus the concept of binary opposition expresses itself through the structure of the work as well as through the natural opposition of forces between piano and orchestra.

The Concerto's single movement may be divided into two sections, the first of which is an Arch form definable by the movement of the Principal Mode through its range of transpositions from B flat to G sharp and back. The second of the two sections is characterized by heightened energies and a solo cadenza which is distinguished less by its virtuosity than by its opening lyricism and its sustained tension. The concerto concludes with a dramatic climax.


Cries and Whispers (1993)

The opportunity to write a new orchestral piece occurred during 1992 when I was awarded an Albert H. Maggs commission from the University of Melbourne. Unlike a normal commission the Maggs award allows a composer the luxury of specifying the type of work to be written.

About the same time as receiving the award I was reading Ingmar Bergman's autobiography The Magic Lantern and I was intrigued by the brutal honesty with which Bergman appraised his life and his work. His positive dissatisfaction with the works he had produced and his revisions in retrospect revealed a committed artist in pursuit of an elusive ideal expression. Bergman's struggle to achieve perfection struck a resonant chord within me, not only because of my own artistic aspirations, but I could see parallels in the life of a friend, Graham Hill, who had died earlier in 1992.

Graham was a brilliant physician who pursued his principal interest in Haematology and bone marrow transplantation with a single-minded passion akin to that of an artist. Not only an astounding intellectual, he was a down-to-earth, practical and caring man into the bargain.

On reflection it became clear that Cries and Whispers, would be a kind of celebration of my heroes, people whom I admired and perceived as role models. Hence the title comes from Bergman (but bears no connection with his film of the same name) and my work was written in memory of Graham Hill.

Musically this piece refers to a number of other composers like Xenakis and Sciarrino but also Australians Brian Howard and Gerard Brophy. Their works provided both structural and aural models for elements in Cries and Whispers.

Most importantly, Cries and Whispers has encouraged me to contemplate more profoundly my search for that elusive ideal means of expression.


The Drover's Wife (1987)

Henry Lawson's short story, The Drover's Wife, has always reminded me of my childhood years spent on a farm. The central idea of Lawson's story, a family held at siege by a snake, is an aspect of growing up which I remember vividly.

When writing the work for narrator and orchestra I attempted to allow the story to unfold in much the same way as would a film. Musical ideas reoccur as needed according to references in the text, e.g. any mention of the loneliness of the bush is accompanied by similar musical ideas. There are other spot references such as thunder in the distance, wind blowing a candle, a storm, the thud of a stick as the family tries to kill the snake, etc. These recurrent ideas helped to unify the work.

The Drover's Wife was commissioned by Queensland Theatre Orchestra (now subsumed by The Queensland Orchestra) with assistance from the Myer Foundation.


Duo Concertante for Clarinet, Viola and Strings (1986)

Stephen Cronin completed his Duo Concertante for Clarinet, Viola and Strings in January 1986 at the end of a short sojurn in England. Like a number of other Australian composers who have spent time in the UK, Cronin found it difficult to adapt to the English lifestyle and culture. This unease was reflected in the difficulty the composer felt while trying to write his Duo Concertante. To overcome this non-productivity Cronin chose a model, Bartok's Divertimento for Strings, as a point of departure and to help find inspiration for his own work.

The Duo Concertante is in three movements and follows a traditional fast-slow-fast structure. Cronin describes the work as unashamedly Neoclassic.

The first movement consists of a number of episodes or variations which explore various combinations of the thematic material. Two repetitive cadenzas appear; the first for clarinet and the second for both soloists.

The second movement, commencing with a slow folk-like melody for the clarinet alone, is characterised by an ominous churning string figure which accompanies a rhapsodic duet for the soloists. The movement builds three times to impassioned outbursts from the clarinet until finally the original melody returns accompanied by the ominous churning played by the solo violist.

Nervous energy pervades the third movement. Unified by a repeated-note figure which is first introduced by the viola and typical Bartokian quartal harmony, the movement features a central fugato which draws together disparate elements and heads inexorably (although not without interruption) to the final close.


Du Tanzt Alleine (1986)

The inspiration for the solo flute piece Du Tanzt Alleine struck while the composer was staying in Vienna during early 1986. The compositional material is derived from two aspects of the city. Firstly there is a direct reference to Viennese life, i.e. a magazine seller's cry heard in the State Opera House. Secondly there is material which comprises an emotional response from the composer to his surroundings while resident in Vienna. These two aspects are woven together to create an intimate aura celebrating musical life.


Even Love can wield a stealthy blade (1992)

In the second song of my song cycle, House Songs, I wished to create a sensation of apparent stillness through the use of constantly changing but repetitive fragments of melody. The poem, 4th House, from American writer Leon Waller's Stormlight series deals with Love that is limited by circumstance and by an unchangeable time-frame. As such there is a sense of frustration but also a sense of joy in the moment. The musical idea had been inspired by the first line of the poem (The moon has made a map upon the ceiling . . .) and I had tried to imagine a musical eqivalent of moonlight shining through gently swaying trees.

Since I was quite pleased with the effect it seemed sensible to re-work the idea in Even Love can wield a stealthy blade (for bass clarinet and percussion) and later in another chamber work, eros reclaimed. In each of these pieces, and in order to suggest the feelings of limerance, I have sought to create music that is restrained but with a subdued tension or an underlying anxiety.


Eros and Agape (1990)

Eros and Agape are Greek words which distinguish two very different means of experiencing love.

Eros describes passionate love; it is experienced as an all-consuming and desperate yearning for a lover. A victim of Eros becomes infatuated by the love-object usually at the expense of all other interests and pursuits and is even willing to endure pain and hardship in order to preserve the attachment. Eros is characterised by feelings of excitement, anxiety, longing and drama.

Agape describes a love which is free of passion. The individual experiences feelings of contentment and stability. Often this form of love may not be directed to a single love-object but may be a general sensation of security and well-being.

This work is a further exploration of structures and instrumental techniques which I used in an earlier chamber work, The Snake Pit. The dualism suggested in the title provides a simple structural model for musical expression and establishes a dramatic procedure for obtaining tension and release.


eros reclaimed (1993)

Their time together was but a moment.
Still,
they captured
all that can be caught with full attending,
like some dark room seen by the flair of lightening,
and remembered when darkness returns.

from 4th House in Stormlight (Leon Waller)

I am greatly attracted to American poet Leon Waller's ability to express intimate or personal, and perhaps somewhat mundane, feelings poetically and yet very simply. By adopting a rather archaic writing style, Waller heightens our appreciation of and gives a greater value to the ordinary. In the excerpt above (which inspired eros reclaimed) we cannot be sure whether he is writing about a lifelong relationship or a brief affair. Sadness and longing for something which no longer exists are implied however the imagery suggests also joy in the memory of the moment. Most people would be familiar with such feelings and for me the text speaks more strongly since it allows us to recognise and value the beauty of these feelings in ourselves.

Waller's Stormlight series formed the basis of the text I used in my song cycle, House Songs. In that work I used only the first line from 4th House (The moon has made a map upon the ceiling . . .) and sought to create a sensation of apparent stillness. Subsequently I reworked that musical idea in Even Love can Wield a Stealthy Blade (for bass clarinet and percussion).

In eros reclaimed I have sought to explore further the sensation of stillness but also the sentiment of remembering, of capturing and keeping a memory. The moment has been expanded and enhanced thereby changing its significance so that it has become more than it ever was. The memory has become more vivid. Eros has been reclaimed.


Flux (1995)

Flux was written for Patricia Pollett in 1995. The piece grew out of a joke where I teased Patricia that I intended to write a piece that used only harmonics. As time passed and I mulled over musical possibilities, the harmonics idea firmed and eventually became reality.

Flux comprises two sections, Strophe and Antistrophe, which may be played continuously or separately. Where the Strophe is still and ethereal, the Antistrophe is animated and earthbound using a wide variety of timbral techniques.

Flux has a companion piece, Breathe, which also uses only harmonics. That piece was drawn from an idea at the opening of Ravel's Soupir. It is my intention to write a third piece in the series.


Gesta (1987)

In its original form Gesta was a short work for a solo xylophone with piano accompaniment. The piece was written for Xenia Hanusiak who gave the first performance with pianist Kevin Power at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1987.


House Songs (1989-91)

1. 5th House/The Snake
2. 4th House/On his Ceiling
3. 1st House/Looking On
4. 3rd House/Silence
5. 2nd House/ The Broken House
6. 7th House/The Clearing

While visiting Australia during 1989 Leon Waller wrote the first of seven poems which provide the text for House Songs. On his return to New York Waller completed the group which Stephen Cronin used to write his song cycle during the next two years. The poetry, at times almost surrealistic, is pervaded by recurrent images of wind and fire and themes of isolation, expectation and change. In collaboration with the author Cronin edited the poems freely sometimes using the text complete and at other times using fragments of the original.

The work, awarded the inaugural Paul Lowin Song Cycle award during 1991, is dedicated to tenor Gregory Massingham who gave the first performance with the Seymour Group at the Adelaide Festival in 1992.


Kiss (1994)

kiss, v.t. 1. to touch or press with the lips, while compressing and then separating them, in token of greeting, affection, etc. 2. to touch gently or lightly. 3. to put, bring, take, etc., by, or as if by, kissing: kiss your dreams goodbye.

from the Macquarie Dictionary (Macquarie Library Pty Ltd: Sydney, 1982)


Sacrifice for solo bass clarinet is based on a seven-note connecting fragment which heralds the beginning of the Danse Sacrale in Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps.
Written in 1996 for bass clarinettist Henri Bok, the piece is based on permutating pitch and rhythmic fragments developed from the Stravinsky quote. Rapid changes of articulation and dynamics, the inclusion of violent timbres like slap tongue and the frequent and irregular rhythmic changes emulate the energy of Stravinsky's original masterpiece.


The Snake Pit (1990)

Although sharing its title with a film made in 1948, The Snake Pit is not a programmatic work. To some extent it exists in the ephemera of gesture converting fragmentary and uncoventional instrumental gestures into ever-more-complicated webs of sound. The clarinet, viola and cello use the extended techniques to produce literal effects such as breathing and heartbeats as well as abstract ensemble sounds. Amplification serves a practical purpose of allowing greater audibility of very soft sounds while heightening the unreal nature of the effects and perverting the natural balance between instruments.

The work was commissioned and first performed by Perihelion during 1990 and since then has enjoyed a number of performances by various groups. In 1991 the work was chosen as a representative Australian composition for the World Music Days festival in Zürich, Switzerland.


Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1984)

Four movements: Allegro non troppo - Largo - Scherzando - Fugue

Cronin's early works are characterised by Neoclassic traits and this clarinet sonata is no exception. the gestures exhibit a simplicity common to this style of writing. For the most part Cronin avoids conventional tonal relationships preferring the ambiguity of superimposed intervals of the fourth and fifth. The motivic importance of these intervals is obvious in the opening melody given to the clarinet and traces of this melody, sometimes directly quoted while at other times expanded or developed, frequently occur in each of the four movements. For this reason the work could be considered monothematic.

The first movement (Allegro non troppo) might be interpreted as sonata form since the two-part melodic idea returns almost without alteration in the last part of the movement.

The second movement (Largo)presents a rhapsodic melody for clarinet supported by sonorous piano accompaniment. There are two interruptions (quasi recitative, quasi cadenza) where the clarinet returns to the bare fifths of the intial motive in the first movement.

The short third movement (Scherzando ) is a quirky and dance-like dialogue for the clarinet and the piano.

Although the final movement is titled Fugue, it does not follow traditional strict fugue structure. It is in fact a three-voice canon with voices entering at a semitone, however, Cronin imitates fugual structure by including subjects, counter-subjects, answers and episodes. In addition there are elements not usual in fugues such as the clarinet cadenza. The principal melody and cadenza of this movement are clearly derived from ideas which first apppear in the previous movements which again emphasises the cyclic nature of this sonata.


Suite for Recorder and Strings (1983)

The dynamic range of the recorder, like the harpsichord and the guitar, has often been considered too soft to compete in the modern orchestra and the use of the instrument has largely been confined to performances of early music and chamber works. While usually associated with Baroque sounds and musical ideas, the revival of interest in the recorder during the early twentieth century is most notable in the English Pastoral school which espoused strong Neoclassic ideals.

In his Suite for Recorder and Strings written in 1983 while still a student, Stephen Cronin attempts to explore two aspects of twentieth century Neoclassicism. The first and third movements are obviously Neoclassic in design ; the structure of the latter is fugal and its material is quite freely derived from the first movement. The central movement, a musical reference to Ralph Vaughan Williams to whom the work is in homage, uses free modal harmony and characteristic rhythmic configurations.


XXXX (1993)

Inspired by Peeling, a short story from Peter Carey's Exotic Pleasures, XXXX is a short virtuosic and theatrical piece written for Kathleen Gallagher and Andrew Ford. Both the flute and voice parts make extensive use of extended performance techniques. The flute 'noises' are an attempt to convey the underlying nervous tension of Carey's Peeling while the voice reflects other elements of the story. XXXX is not programmatic but the structure relies on a fairly conventional tension-release model.


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This page was last updated May 2010 Author: Stephen Cronin