Midnight Drearies: Three Moods on Edgar Allan Poe

Instrumentation: chamber orchestra

Year: 2012

Duration: 17 minutes

Awards: BMI Student Composer Award Finalist

Program Note:
Edgar Allan Poe has long been considered one of the great writers in Gothic literature.  His works, as he himself suggested in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition," are intended to strike a unique balance between mainstream appeal and higher literary craft.  In many ways, my goals as a composer are similar, not just in mitigating this often tenuous dynamic, but also in tapping into powerful emotional states.  Poe is a master at creating moods, for instantly drawing the reader into his dynamic worlds.  Many of his works spend a significant amount of time, sometimes paragraph upon paragraph as in the opening to The Fall of the House of Usher, simply detailing his specific vision of the story's tenor.  In this piece, I was interested in musically depicting the imagery, which Poe so eloquently writes.  I have chosen three of Poe's short stories: The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Fall of the House of Usher.  In each movement, I deliberately avoid any programmatic connection to the story, that is to say specific events in the music do not coincide with any actual depiction of an event within the intended story.  Rather this piece examines and details the specifc tone of each story.  Midnight Drearies: Three Moods on Edgar Allan Poe was written for Dan Welcher and the University of Texas New Music Ensemble.

Movement I - The Black Cat
"Evil thoughts became my sole intimate - the darkest and most evil of thoughts."

The Black Cat is a first-person narrative of an alcoholic's descent into madness.  Plagued by this "spirit of perverseness," the narrator wreaks havoc on both his wife and his beloved cat, Pluto, through fits of incendiary rage.  The narrator has three bursts of anger, which result in the narrator cutting out Pluto's eye, hanging Pluto from a tree, and killing his wife who attempts to prevent the narrator from injuring a second cat, virtually identical to Pluto, which the narrator found in a tavern.  Musically, I have tried to depict the inner feelings of the narrator and his unstable frame of mind.  The narrator is constantly subjected to an uncontrollable intensity that wells inside of him before bursting into aggression.  The music attempts to follow this trajectory and its aftermath.

Movement II - The Pit and the Pendulum
"I could no longer doubt the doom prepared for me by monkish ingenuity in torture."

The Pit and the Pendulum is one of Poe's few action-adventure stories.  The story tells of a man who is imprisoned in a dark, dank cell with a cavernous hole in the middle.  It is the intention of his captors, supposedly the Spanish Inquisition, that the man unknowingly fall to his death in the pit.  The narrator nearly does so but is able to catch himself.  Upon this failed attempt, his imprisoners then strap the man to a table and slowly let a pendulum with a giant blade attached to it make its way down to sever him in half.  Through ingenuity, the man escapes this trap and his cell.  I am always taken by the end of the story which is some of Poe's most exhilarating writing.  Like any good action writer, Poe constantly propels the drama through riveting suspense.  Thus, the music is high octane, quickly shifting from one moment to the next to recreate this feeling of intense anxiety and impending doom.

Movement III - The Fall of the House of Usher
"I know not how it was - but within first glimpse of the building an insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit."

The Fall of the House of Usher is my favorite Poe story and, in my opinion, his best writing.  Unlike many of Poe's other stories, The Fall of the House of Usher contains significantly less action and is a prime example of Poe's ability to set the scene.  The story involves an unnamed narrator who visits his sickly childhood friend, Roderick.  Upon his arrival, the narrator learns that Roderick's twin sister, Madeline, recently passed and he assists Roderick in interring her in the family crypt below the house.  A week passes as both men become increasingly agitated until one evening during a tumultuous storm Madeline's ghost appears, scaring Roderick to death and causing the house to crumble.  The story is steeped with melancholic imagery and symbolism.  Poe remarked that this tale was his greatest example of totalism, the approach in which every detail has some significance.  Here the music focuses on this intense depression while trying to capture the colorful imagery of Poe's words.