Opus number: 13

Title: “The Idea of Order at Key West”  A Double Concerto for Soprano and Violin (text by Wallace Stevens)

Instrumentation: four percussionists, pf-cel, harp; large string orchestra

Date written: 1979–1981, New York, Boston

Length: twenty-one minutes

Premiere performance: Juilliard Philharmonia, Jorge Mester, conductor, Ruth Jacobson, soprano, Nicholas Mann, violinist, May 14, 1982, Alice Tully Hall, New York City

Program notes: Bell writes, “I have long been interested in setting the poetry of Wallace Stevens to music and have tried to emulate Stevens’s unusually wholesome yet profound poetic character as well as his inevitable sense of form. Having set two of Stevens’s poems, ‘Domination of Black’ (for five solo voices) and ‘Reality is an Activity of the Most August Imagination’ (for soprano and piano), I felt ready to tackle the more complex poem, ‘The Idea of Order at Key West.’ This piece has two soloists, a soprano, who is the woman singing by the sea, and a violin who provides a subliminal voice. The first-chair strings form an octet of spectators. The body of the strings and the percussion represent the sea and the exotic setting of Key West.”

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.

The water never formed to mind or voice,

Like a body wholly body, fluttering

Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion

Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,

That was not ours although we understood,

Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.

The song and water were not medleyed sound

Even if what she sang was what she heard,

Since what she sang was uttered word by word.

It may be that in all her phrases stirred

The grinding water and the gasping wind;

But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.

The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea

Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.

Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew

That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea

That rose, or even colored by many waves;

If it was only the outer voice of sky

and cloud, of the sunken coral water walled,

However clear, it would have been deep air,

The heaving speech of air, a summer sound

Repeated in a summer without end

and sound alone.

But it was more than that,

More even than her voice, and ours, among

The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,

Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped

On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made

The sky acutest at its vanishing.

She measured to the hour its solitude.

She was the single artificer of the world

In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,

Whatever self it had, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker.

Then we, As we beheld her striding there alone,

Knew that there never was a world for her

Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,

Why, when the singing ended and we turned

Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights

The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,

As the night descended, tilting in the air,

Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,

Fixing embalzoned zones and fiery poles,

Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,

The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,

Words of the fragrant portals, dimly–starred,

And of ourselves and of our origins,

In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.


Reviews: Entitled “Music was right on Key West” and written by Bill Zakariasen for The New York Daily News (May 17, 1982), the article read in its entirety:

“America’s Mouse That Roared, Key West, got into the news again this past weekend, thanks to the Juilliard School of Music.

“On Friday night, the Juilliard Philharmonia under Jorge Mester’s direction gave the world premiere of “The Idea of Order at Key West” by Larry Bell, a current doctoral candidate at the school.

“Described by the composer as ‘A Double Concerto for Soprano and Violin,’ Bell’s work is set to the poem of the same name by Wallace Stevens. Like much Stevens poetry, “The Idea of Order at Key West” is pretty knotty stuff–more notable for setting indefinable, though definite, moods rather than making much overt sense to the reader.

“Bell admits a special affinity for Stevens, however (he set two other large poems by him in preparation for this project), and if his music doesn’t necessarily clarify any of the poetry’s hidden meanings, it takes on a decisive and individual life of its own.

“Bell’s writing is highly evocative of nature, and the parts for solo violin and soprano are demanding. One suspects he has on occasion been influenced by one of David del Tredici’s ‘Alice’ pieces, but that’s not a bad model these days.

“It’s really quite impressively beautiful, and in the main the performance, featuring soprano Ruth Jacobson and violinist Nicholas Mann, seemed fine. However, Stevens’ poetry–which needs all the clarity of projection it can get–was given short shrift by Jacobson’s mushy diction, in which consonants didn’t seem to exist.

“The rest of the concert included a good performance of Mozart’s Fourth Horn Concerto with Ozeas Arantes, while Mester led stylish renditions of Respighi’s “The Birds” and Koday’s “Dances from Galanta.”

“The Philharmonia is classed as Juilliard’s’ number three orchestra, but it played like number one Friday.”