The Book of Moonlight


(N/S R 1033)

Ayano Ninomiya, violin
Larry Bell, piano
Steve McConnell, narrator


The Book of Moonlight, op. 31

The best analogy for the structure of the 22-minute piece is the so-called “concept album,” a continuous set of songs based on one themecmoonlight in music. The title of the work is taken from the Wallace Stevens poem The Comedian as the Letter C where, on approaching Carolina, the comedian reflects, “The book of moonlight is not written yet nor half begun.” This work is a set of nocturnes that refer to other music, both popular and classical, that center around the theme of moonlight.

The melody for “Carolina Moon” was written when the composer was fifteen years old; only at its end is the familiar song quoted. John Lennon’s opening declamation of “Mr. Moonlight” is here reinterpreted by the violin introduction. The words for the title “O holy Moon” are taken from a refrain in Roger Sessions’s Idyll of Theocritus.

“Mondschein” is the nickname for Beethoven’s Sonata, here used as an accompaniment to the composer’s own melody found in his narrator, cello, and piano work The Black Cat.

“Harvest Moon” contains some hoe-down fiddle music. “Luna di Miele” is Italian for honeymoon. “Carolina Moon Revisited” reprises the original folk melody. Each of the “songs without words” is connected by episodes of ambiguous tonality. There are times, such as at the beginning, when the instruments are playing in separate time frames and their bar lines do not match up.

This work, largely composed at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in the summer of 1987 and completed in March 1988, was written for Peter Ciaschini, concertmaster of the Dayton Philharmonic. Vahn Armstrong gave the Boston premiere, and Ayano Ninomiya and the composer played it at Bell’s fiftieth birthday retrospective in Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, January 17, 2002.

In Memory of Roger Sessions, op. 29

“In Memory of Roger Sessions” for solo violin was written a year after Sessions’s death, during Christmas in 1986a87 in Boston, Wilson, North Carolina, and St. Maarten, Netherlands Antilles. It was premiered by Ayano Ninomiya in April 1998.

The work consists of three short movements: “Elegy,” “Parody,” and “Dialogue.” “Elegy,” based on a theme from Sessions’s most ambitious work, the opera Montezuma, is a slow rhapsodic movement with implied counterpoint. “Parody” refers to the mocking character of the second movement as well as to its Renaissance definition, that is a form of homage paid by quoting the music of another composer. Nine of Sessions’s workscthe Black Maskers for orchestra, Symphony No. 1, Second Sonata for piano, Duo for violin and piano, Symphony No. 2, Concerto for violin and orchestra, Sonata for Piano No. 1, Symphony No. 7, and the Sonata for solo violincall identified in the score, are quoted in a seamless set of sarcastic variations. “Dialogue” is an imagined conversation between myself and Sessions much like our actual conversations. Our names are spelled as musical themes–L(A)rry (B)(E)ll and Rog(E)r (S=Eb) (E) (S) (S)ion(S)–that are presented antiphonally and simultaneously. The repeated Ebs show Sessions, as in reality always, having the last word.

Four Pieces in Familiar Style, op. 41

“Four Pieces in Familiar Style” was written for the New England Conservatory Preparatory School’s String Duo Project and first performed by Jennifer Press and Julie Thompson at the annual Contemporary Music Festival in January 1995. The four pieces are characterized by dance rhythms and their sonority is derived from the frequent use of open strings. The movement titles are: Sonata in Two Parts, Which Side are you on?, The Cat and the Moon, and Four-Voice Fugue. Ayano Ninomiya performed a tour de force by recordingcwith herselfcboth parts of the duo.

Just As I Am, op. 62

“Just as I am” was written in May 2002 and dedicated to Ayano Ninomiya, whose enthusiasm for our joint recording project and her lyrical, singing violin playing inspired me. It is based on the old Southern hymn “Just as I am, without one plea.” The two-movement sonata bears a superficial resemblance to Beethoven’s two-movement Sonata for Piano, op. 90. In my piece the first movement centers around G major and the second movement around E major. A fragment of the hymn is quoted Lontano, at a great distance, in a very high register both at the beginning and end of the entire piece.

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, op. 35

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is based on a 1982 essay of the same title by Lewis Thomas. The music, written in Boston in 1991, was commissioned by and is dedicated to violinist Joanna Jenner, who requested an unusual composition in which the violinist would also speak as a narrator. The work can also be performed with a separate narrator (as it is here). Jenner and I premiered it in August 1992 at the Bennington College Chamber Music Conference and Composers’ Forum of the East and performed it subsequently in Boston and New York.

The Lewis Thomas first-person text I selected deals with the long and fearful shadow cast by the threat of nuclear annihilation, a prospect of death of not only the earth and all of mankind, but also a “second death” of all that has ever been known and experienced. The essay makes frequent reference to music and I have incorporated several quotations, for example Brahms’s Third Symphony, Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge and the beginning of the Op. 131 quartet, the first (and last) movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and my own “The Idea of Order at Key West.” The work is based on the opening measures of the last movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: These measures act as the basis for continuous variations whose effect is unrelieved conflict.

Sleep Song, a children’s piece for violin and piano, op. 18

Sleep Song, a lullaby for violin and piano, was written in Boston in 1984 for the children of friends of Verio Piroddi. It is dedicated to Piroddi and was given its premiere in March 1986 by violinist Peter Ciaschini and pianist Michael Dewart. It was arranged for viola for Bob Williams in May 2002. Both parts are designed to be played by children. In a popular song form it is meant to be repeated until the performers are lulled to sleep.


Top 10 Classical 2003: Philadelphia City Paper

Larry Bell is a Boston-based composer with roots in the rural South. In the tradition of Ives and Copland, he incorporates vernacular American music into traditional classical forms. This album of violin music, mostly based on 19th-century church hymns, is hauntingly beautiful, but never cloying.

Philadelphia City Paper, Peter Burwasser, December 2003


Larry Bell goes to Carolina in his mind for inspiration in the title piece in this recording of haunting and unabashedly romantic music for solo violin and violin and piano. The title composition is based on the theme of moonlight or, more precisely, other popular and classical compositions that refer to moonlight. Its title comes from the Wallace Stevens poem The Comedian as the Letter C where, on approaching Carolina, the comedian reflects, “The book of moonlight is not written yet nor half begun.” Bell expertly weaves American 19th century hymns and other vernacular music into a harmonic crazy quilt of sounds that manage to be both engagingly tonal and structurally modern. “In Memory of Roger Sessions” for solo violin consists of three short movements that quote generously from Sessions’ own work and end in an “imaginary” musical dialogue between Bell and Sessions. “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony” is based on a 1982 essay of the same title by the great biologist and humanist writer Lewis Thomas and uses a narrator, in this case Steve McConnell, to read from Thomas’ fearful thoughts on nuclear annihilation and loss of human experience. Bell seamlessly integrates musical quotations from Brahams and Beethoven, as well as Mahler, into the piece. “Just as I am” is based on an old Southern hymn and is dedicated to Ayano Ninomiya, a violinist whose lyrical playing and conviction brings Bell’s passionate agrarian vision of modern romanticism vividly to life. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, this is one box of chocolates where you don’t have to worry about getting the taffee., Jerry Bowles, January 2005


Larry Bell’s The Book of Moonlight Op.31 is, according to the composer’s words, “a set of nocturnes that refer to other music, both popular and classical, that centre round the theme of moonlight”. Incidentally, the title is taken from a poem by Wallace Stevens (“The book of moonlight is not written yet nor half begun”). As is often the case in Bell’s music, the composer draws on various sources as basic material for his own compositions. In this case, a melody Carolina Moon (written when the composer was fifteen), a song by John Lennon (Mr. Moonlight) as well as allusions to a piece by Sessions, Beethoven’s Mondschein Sonata and to “hoe-down fiddle music”. This fairly large-scale piece for violin and piano actually consists of two large outer sections separated by a short interlude; and the whole, however, is remarkably held together, for all the basic material’s diversity. The first section On Approaching Carolina (in three shorter sections) thus quotes Bell’s own tune as well as John Lennon’s and Sessions’. The interlude Mondschein appropriately alludes to Beethoven and a fragment from the Mondschein Sonata is woven into the accompaniment. The third section On Leaving Carolina (also in three shorter sections) revisits what the composer describes as “hoe-down fiddle music” followed by an Italian serenade of some sort before a final restatement of the opening tune.

In earlier reviews of discs of Bell’s music, I mentioned (I think) that he studied – among others – with Roger Sessions. So, In Memory of Roger Sessions Op.29 was written a few months after Sessions’ death. It is a short suite for solo violin in three movements : Elegy (a rhapsodic fantasy based on a theme from Sessions’ operaMontezuma), Parody (a scherzo of some sort and a real compositional tour de forcequoting from nine works of Sessions, and all over in less than three minutes!) andDialogue (an imagined conversation between Sessions and Bell, whose names are spelled as musical themes, and one in which Sessions has the last word!)

Just As I Am Op.62 is a short piece for violin and piano in two movements (Risolutoand Scorevolle) based on an old Southern hymn, a fragment of which is statedLontano to introduce the first movement (this has a slightly archaic tinge) and restatedLontano as a short peaceful coda.

Four Pieces in Familiar Style Op.41 is a short suite of four duos for two violins (played here by the same player) that may be compared to Bartòk’s own Duos, i.e. as didactic pieces for younger players. I hope that they may be as popular as Bartòk’s work.

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony Op.35 (to give it its full title) is a piece for violin/narrator and piano that may of course be performed (as here) by a narrator, a violinist and a pianist. (To some extent, I think that it might be preferable this way.) The text is drawn from the eponymous essay by Lewis Thomas ruminating on diverse subjects such as war, death and music. The author comments on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, but also on Brahms and Beethoven so that the music includes a number of quotes from and allusions to the music of these composers as well as from a piece by Larry Bell (The Idea of Order at Key West Op.13, a concerto for soprano, violin and orchestra composed in 1981). The music is based on the opening measures of the final movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. This intensely serious and honest piece, however, does somewhat outstay its welcome (i.e. as far as this writer is concerned) because it deals with very serious concerns that possibly should have deserved a more in-depth treatment. Incidentally, Bell’s also composed another piece including a narrator (The Black Cat Op.28 – narrator, cello and piano) that may ultimately be more satisfying just because it simply tells a story. This is nevertheless a quite substantial work, and one that certainly tell us much about Bell’s love of Mahler’s music (he did so again later in his trio Mahler in Blue Light Op.43for alto saxophone, cello and piano some time later).

This generously filled release of Bell’s music for violin is rounded off by the simple, straightforward and delightful lullaby Sleep Song Op.18.

As I have repeatedly noted in earlier reviews, Larry Bell’s music is superbly crafted, always well written for the instruments, straightforward and utterly communicative. All these pieces fit that description, and the disc as a whole is very enjoyable indeed, especially when the music is played with so much conviction and commitment as here. The recording may be a bit too close for some tastes, but nothing serious enough to deter anyone from enjoying it.

Hubert, April 2005