1975 found me as disappointed with my life as with my previous musical thinking. I was questioning both the way I composed (why did I limit myself to standard notation? to received forms? to forced choice among “isms”?) and the way I lived (why has so much of what I wanted brought me so little joy?)
A return to the poetry of Dylan Thomas revealed that my life crises continued to unfold in eerie synchronicity with his own. My first musical encounter with Dylan Thomas had been with Fern HIll, his reflection on his childhood from the vantage point of his twenties, which I set in my early twenties and could no longer deny that childhood was behind me. I set his Poem in October in my early thirties, when, much like the poet, I felt that now youth too had vanished and what remained were the uncertain promises of the future.
At 37, with 40 clearly in sight, I discovered Thomas’s terrifying Poem on His Birthday, in which his 35th year is not celebrated but “spurned.” Poem on His Birthday distorts the “lamb-white days” of Fern Hill to the grotesqueries of “herons who “walk in their shroud.” Poem in October’s sparkling ocean becomes a gull-haunted river Styx. Yet even as the poet “sails out to die” (Thomas himself died at 39), he exults that “the closer I move to death . . . the louder the sun blooms.”
Only then did I realize that I’d been writing memory play on Thomas’s poetry for 20 years, of which this would be the final — and most difficult — act. I realized that the bel canto vocalism of the previous pieces couldn’t contain this character’s midlife madness. I needed the darkly operatic address of a dramatic baritone. The sunny chorus of Fern Hill needed to return, transfigured, as demons of the poet’s mind. Only the largest symphonic forces could support, lead, and color these voices. What I didn’t yet know was how my musical means could encompass every emotion of Thomas’s character. I couldn’t hear Thomas — or myself, anymore — in the kinds of music I’d written before.
So Poem on His Birthday became only the second piece I ever composed (after my Oboe Concerto) that I built architecturally. That is, I planned the piece out in its large paragraphs, its small gestures, and its palette of sounds both familiar and unfamiliar, before I ever turned to the keyboard or the page. I took the important themes from the first two pieces, and sketched their possible paths through the new score; I dreamed up (sometimes literally) an array of sounds (sea winds, bird calls, ghost cries) and decided on their precise shape first, their notation later. Then I composed the piece, allowing that “blueprint” to govern the inclusion and inflection of a range of musics wider than I’d ever used up till then.
– John Corigliano