Opus number: 8

Title: Reality Is An Activity of the Most August Imagination (text by Wallace Stevens)

Instrumentation: mezzo soprano and piano

Date written: 1977, Juilliard School, New York

Length: five minutes

Premiere performance: Judith Malafronte, soprano, Larry Bell, pianist, April 17, 1980, Paul Hall, The Juilliard School

Program notes:  “Reality is an Activity of the Most August Imagination” for soprano and piano was written in 1977 and originally was intended to be half of a song cycle based on two poems of Wallace Stevens. The music to the other song, “The Poems of Our Climate” has been written and revised many times, but, to my mind, it is incomplete.

The form of the music is an athematic arch suggested by the form as well as the content of the poem. I think the poem is about natural light and its relationship to human feeling. In simple terms, I wanted the music to act as fireworks going up, reaching a brilliant apogee, and then dissolving into darkness. This, like many of Stevens’s poems, seems to begin in the real and end in the imagination and I tried to make the music correspond on every level to the demands of the poetry. The work concludes with an almost unrecognizable restatement of the first vocal phrase.


Last Friday, in the big light of last Friday night,
We drove home from Cornwall to Hartford, late.
It was not a night blown at a glassworks in Vienna
Or Venice, motionless, gathering time and dust.
There was a crush of strength in a grinding going round,
Under the front of the westward evening star,
The vigor of glory, a glittering in the veins,
As things emerged and moved and were dissolved,
Either in distance, change or nothingness,
The visible transformations of summer night,
An argentine abstraction approaching form
And suddenly denying itself away.
There was an insolid billowing of the solid.
Night’s moonlight lake was neither water nor air