The Seven Ages(2008)
The Seven Ages is a song cycle by John Harbison setting six poems of Louise Glück. The song cycle is for mezzo soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, violoncello and vibraphone.
The Seven Ages was commissioned by the Serge Koussevitsky Foundation in the Library of Congress, and is dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitsky. The piece, which is about twenty-five minutes long, is scored for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, violoncello and vibraphone. First performances have been entrusted to the New York New Music Ensemble and the San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Players, Pamela Dellal, mezzo-soprano.
I am grateful to Louise Glück for her poems, both in this piece and wherever they have appeared, and to the Wylie Agency for use of six of them in this piece.
This vocal chamber piece was composed during June and July of 2008 at Aspen and Tanglewood. As I wrote it I became convinced that every poem in the book – in fact every Glück poem – could be music, this in spite of the fact that her poems are often much larger than those composers tend to set. Her words are clear, strongly placed, deeply felt, vivid – all the things needed to suggest rhythm, melody, and a kind of “symphonic” structure.
Once I chose the poems I began to “hear” the sequence as a whole, grouped thematically around “The Seven Ages,” the book’s title poem and the first in the collection. Composition began with the final lines of this first poem (although it was eventually the last to be completed), then moved into the other five poems, presented here in the order in which they appear in the book. Although the songs were all composed at once, they each made independent musical proposals.
While visiting with the Tanglewood Composition Fellows in the summer of 2008, in connection with a performance of my Symphony 5, which includes a setting of her poem, “Relic,” Louise Glück gave colorful, reluctant testimony about her writing habits. Her work leaves her periodically, reappearing inconveniently and unbidden. This account confirmed, for me, the affinity I feel for her cadence, voice, and material. The Seven Ages, taken hold in the midst of an active summer schedule, after a “blank” period – which always feels irrevocable – felt like an urgent conversation with the poet. After living in these poems it was difficult to leave them.
The Seven Ages