Frederick Frahm’s Winter-moon is a concert work for organ that was first inspired by a brief poem from the Beloved Stranger (1919) by Southwest American poet Witter Bynner:
From behind the black hill of night…
And soon it was silver forever
And there was no change…
Until its time came…
And its setting was as white as a corpse,
Among the flowers of dawn.
The composer writes: Bynner lived in Santa Fe for many years and knew, as I have come to learn since moving to New Mexico, that the moon in the desert sky is magnificent to behold. Its entrancing appearance varies greatly by season and the manner in which it can transform the landscape is a source of perpetual wonder. I wanted to portray the moon’s play of light which enchants those surreal nights (especially in the cold months) when the desert is anything but dormant. There is much in this music about dance and motion, and the occasional outburst keeps the music a bit on edge. Over time even the outbursts come to be expected. I found myself deeply inspired by this piece as it was taking shape. I loved the form, and the juxtaposition of contraries (very much a mode of writing for me…). When it came time for the piece to be more or less vetted (I had to see if it worked for real), I found that I would need to create a new context for the work in order for it to have the most impact.
The first time I performed the work, in an early draft, was on Christmas Eve at the last mass of the day at St. Luke in Albuquerque in 2013. The music came to be a meditation on the gospel which told the story about the angels and the shepherds. I wrote the following text for the congregation, abandoning the Bynner poem for the time being, so that as they listened to the music I might help them visualize this particular pastoral moment in the Christmas narrative:
A dark night, illuminated only by stars… Shepherds, some sleeping, some guarding a quiet flock of sheep… An icy cold, a chilling wind, warmth, and kinship, found only in close company. From the sky, a bold trumpeting, piercing the night air, fear-some and profound, resounding through the heavens. The shepherds, wary and strong, accustomed to their pattern, earthy and uncomplicated— they are startled from their sleep, they are afraid for this celestial happening. Above them, above the trumpeting, a star, bright and golden, points to the earth. The radiant light shines on a distant stable, the place where our redeemer is laid, where our salvation is born. God made flesh.
It’s not unusual for me to associate different texts with the same piece of music. A piece of music has its own narrative and probably doesn’t require any words to help it be expressive. “Music can say that which words alone cannot…” (Messiaen, I think.) Sometimes I’ve found that my desire for a listener to more fully enter into the conversation with me in the performance of a new piece begs of me to offer some further context. This of course can get in the way of letting music be music. I risk that one hearer may not perceive the music as consistent with the text I’ve chosen for their ruminations. On the other hand, a title and some poetic imagery coupled with the varied experiences of a listener can make music all the more compelling. They may hear things that I cannot predict and they may find something, a passage or a phrase or a kinship with another work they know, that allows them a ‘discovery’ of sorts. For me, music is about storytelling and I look for the best way in each work to do that.
I wrote this piece for Robin Walker in November of 2013. I can’t remember how many different drafts I sent him! And we had several discussions about the last chord. Should it be fortissimo or pianissimo? Both seemed to work. You can hear his fine performance of this piece on the superb Richards, Fowkes & Co. organ at St. George Church, Hanover Square, London.