Devilled Swan

Devilled Swan was commissioned by John Beckwith, a former professor of mine at the University of Toronto, on the event of his receipt of the Toronto Arts Award for music in 1994 from the Arts Foundation of Greater Toronto. It was premiered by Arraymusic on June 27, 1995.

Devilled Swan is based on the late 18th-century hymn tune China, by Timothy Swan, a highly esteemed American hymnodist who also had a reputation for hard living. China was immensely popular throughout most of the 19th century, especially at funerals, but it virtually disappeared from use thereafter. I use it in recognition of Professor Beckwith’s devotion to hymn scholarship. Swan’s quirky, leaping melody is progressively squashed flatter and flatter, and the inner voices become unrecognizably chromatic, while the rhythmically lively sections of the opening collapse into stasis, in a kind of musical vivisection of the hymn. This is in part a reaction against the text, which tells us not to mourn the dead, but rather to envy their extraterrestrial travels. And in part, it is a cheeky salute to my erstwhile teacher, as I use musical materials (octaves, chromatic scales, monotonously regular durations) which John warned his students about, as they were thin ice.