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A Descent into the Maelström (1990)


available from Theodore Presser, Inc.

duration ca. 13:00


for large orchestra

piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, english horn, 3 Bb clarinets (3rd doubles Eb clarinet)

Bb bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd doubles contrabassoon), 4 horns,

3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 4 percussion, strings

Program Note

This thirteen-minute tone poem is based on a short story of the same title by the American master of horror and suspense Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).  Rather than the mere slaughter-fests so popular today, his works are psychological thrillers, studies in the conflict between the power of fear and that of reason.  This theme led Poe to create the first detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, in which keen observation and deduction are used to uncover a most unlikely solution.  In Poe’s short story of 1841, A Descent into the Maelström, so too are the emotional world and the intellectual world pitted against one another.  Set in flashback, it is a tale of three brothers whose fishing boat is caught in a monstrous whirlpool off the Norwegian coast.  The youngest is immediately killed when the mast to which he has lashed himself breaks and is thrown overboard.  The boat is drawn relentlessly into the whirlpool, and one brother can do nothing but panic.  The other observes the flotsam nearby and observes that cylindrical objects are drawn into the abyss more slowly than other shapes.  Unable to attract his brother’s attention, he lashes himself to a barrel and leaps out of the boat shortly before it is dragged to destruction.  The cylindrical barrel’s shape saves him, and eventually the maelström subsides. 


My tone poem consists of two large sections that attempt to reflect the story and also the style, pacing and tone of the original.  The first part depicts the opening scene in which the maelström appears in the distance, seen from a mountaintop where the unnamed narrator begins his tale.  Following a brief transition, the second section consists of a series of variations, not of a theme, but of the musical depiction of the whirlpool itself.  Throughout the work, allusions emerge and submerge in a sort of stylistic whirlpool.  Poe himself often used allusion and quotation in his own writing, particularly to the classics, and so too I have alluded to famous programmatic classical music that seemed appropriate—among others, there are references (but not literal quotations) to pieces about water (Smetana’s The Moldau and Debussy’s La Mer), ships (Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman), Fate (Liszt’s Les Preludes) and death (Mahler’s 10th Symphony). 


I was originally drawn to Poe’s story by his vivid imagery, particularly his use of sonic imagery, and the musicality of his writing.  He was intrigued not only by the appearance of a thing, but also by the sound of it, and even by the sound of his description of it.  As a poet, he chose particular words for their very sound as much as for their meaning.  He carried this principle into his prose, as in the following passage from the beginning of the story, depicted in the first half of the tone poem:


“… As the old man spoke, I became aware of a loud and gradually increasing sound, like the moaning of a vast herd of buffaloes upon an American prairie; and at the same moment I perceived that what seamen term the chopping character of the ocean beneath us, was rapidly changing into a current which set to the eastward. Even while I gazed, this current acquired a monstrous velocity. Each moment added to its speed - to its headlong impetuosity. In five minutes the whole sea… was lashed into ungovernable fury…. Here the vast bed of the waters, seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into phrensied convulsion - heaving, boiling, hissing - gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices, and all whirling and plunging on to the eastward with a rapidity which water never elsewhere assumes except in precipitous descents.


    In a few minutes more, there came over the scene another radical alteration. The general surface grew somewhat more smooth, and the whirlpools, one by one, disappeared, while prodigious streaks of foam became apparent where none had been seen before. These streaks, at length, spreading out to a great distance, and entering into combination, took unto themselves the gyratory motion of the subsided vortices, and seemed to form the germ of another more vast. Suddenly - very suddenly - this assumed a distinct and definite existence, in a circle of more than a mile in diameter. The edge of the whirl was represented by a broad belt of gleaming spray; but no particle of this slipped into the mouth of the terrific funnel, whose interior, as far as the eye could fathom it, was a smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.”


Particularly striking is Poe’s juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory images—those of sheer horror against others of awe-inspiring magnificence and beauty.  The second half of the composition was inspired by such a passage, which takes place as the boat is drawn into the maelström:


    "Never shall I forget the sensations of awe, horror, and admiration with which I gazed about me. The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth, as the rays of the full moon, from that circular rift amid the clouds which I have already described, streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss….


    "The rays of the moon seemed to search the very bottom of the profound gulf; but still I could make out nothing distinctly, on account of a thick mist in which everything there was enveloped, and over which there hung a magnificent rainbow, like that narrow and tottering bridge which … is the only pathway between Time and Eternity. This mist, or spray, was no doubt occasioned by the clashing of the great walls of the funnel, as they all met together at the bottom - but the yell that went up to the Heavens from out of that mist, I dare not attempt to describe.”

A Descent into the Maelström was premiered by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of  Samuel Wong, on June 6, 2003 at the Tsuen Wan Town Hall, Hong Kong.

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