The perennial instant, between Keats and Messiaen:

Fabio Grasso, ...AS DOTH ETERNITY...


Fabio Grasso, 2018


Jump below to the embedded video


The Ode to a Grecian urn, written in 1819 by John Keats (1795-1821) can be considered as a fascinating poetic meditation about the concepts of time and eternity.


In Keats's vision the ancient monument mentioned by the title, marble "bride of quietness" depicting a pastoral scene, suspends the time, evokes Arcadian "flowery tales", suggests "unheard melodies" and above all captures beauty, love and exuberance of youth in their apex, making immortal this joyful instant, never fading, never wasted by old age.


The aporetic relation between the eternal liveliness of these privileged figures and the silent immobility of the sculpted material is the inspiring source for the chamber work doth eternity... for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano (2018), whose title is drawn from a verse of the Ode.

This instrumentation explicitly recalls that of Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps, highly imaginative musical representation of the boundary between time and eternity.



FORMAL STRUCTURE - video timing indicates the length of the sections


Prologue - 0'10''

The opening of the piece immediately reveals the soloistic character of the Clarinet's part, intended in this prologue as musical mirror of the poet's voice that evokes and interrogates the images rescued from the time's action. After this introduction and the consequent interventions of the Section A, the Clarinet remains silent until the Coda of the work, which confirms its solo role in polar relation with the Trio.


Section A - 1'11''

Trio's answer takes shape through a general crescendo, creating the only true animated interaction between the Clarinet and the other instruments, in an unitary gesture that aims to synthesize Keats's idea of the perennial motion crystallized in the perennial instant. This climax is followd by a sudden silence, from which the last echo of the Clarinet's solo invocation emerges as conclusion of the section.


Section B

This macrosection is the diachronic development of what was synchronically expressed by the Section A: it seems to be its dilated reflection, living on a dialectic relation that now becomes manifest inside the Trio, through the polarity Piano - Strings.

B1 - 3'01'' - Phase of time dilatation as "thesis" - Strings

At 3'40'' the melodic fragment E - F sharp, recurring element in the diachronic phases, makes its first clear apparition.

B2 - 4'02'' Phase of time dilatation as "antithesis" - Piano. The echoed chords (chords followed by a repetition with lower intensity) quote a well-known figure of Messiaen's Quatuor.

B3 - 4'26'' Phase of time dilatation as "synthesis" of B2 and B1. Violin and Cello materials of B1 are here transformed into a distended line, doubled at the distance of one or more octaves, like in an episode of Messiaen's Quatuor.

B2' - 5'11'' Transfigured recapitulation of B2, with piano elements of B3

B1' - 5'31'' Transfigured recapitulation of B1, with sudden dynamic contrasts

B2'' - 6'09'' Conclusive transfiguration of B2


Section C

C1 - 6'31'' Process of acceleration and proliferation applied to repeated chords, metamorphosis of the idea of B2

C2 - 6'51'' Phase of temporal suspension, during which Piano and Strings proceed independently, repeating permuted figurations.

C3 - 7'07'' As a consequence of the break caused by C2, this segment presents a drastic rarefaction of the events: few violent and isolated fragments blink on the background of the third pedal resonances.


Epilogue - 7'42'' / Coda 9'28''

The desertification of C3 generates a change of polarity inside the Trio. The Violin, alluding to the last movement of Messiaen's Quatuor, starts a long melodic line, more and more ascending, in a more and more despairing crescendo.

In relation to Keats's poem, this phrase could be interpreted as an extreme and vain attempt of shrinking from the thought that the ephemeral human happiness has the only chance to be preserved by a sculpture on a funeral monument. While this sort of cry is longing for an eternal dimension, time flow is inexorably beaten by the sequences of fragments of Cello and Piano, through which the cell E - F sharp shines again, with nihilistic indifference.

During the Coda, before fading out, the final resigned commentary of the solo Clarinet is somehow troubled by a strike on the lowest strings of the Piano, like a shadowing echo from a dark underworld.


Fabio Grasso, november 2018




Premiered in New York, Tenri Cultural Institute, by Washington Square Contemporary Music Society, 2018-Oct-26

Benjamin Fingland, clarinet; Sunghae Anna Lim, violin; Christopher Gross, cello; Blair McMillen, piano


Thanks to WSCMS and Louis Karchin for the video