Right now I'm working on a short film score for the Marvin Hamlisch Film Scoring Contest [Cine.org], so my listening has tended to the dramatic and sweeping. (It also means I've started focusing on the soundtracks to movies I'm watching even more than usual, sometimes to the point of missing lines of dialogue . . . ) And while there's certainly a lot of highly dramatic repertoire written for the concert hall, much of the best of it comes from the stage. So today we feature one such work, a ballet by Persian composer Behzad Ranjbaran.
After studying composition at the Tehran Conservatory (which he entered at the age of nine), Ranjbaran continued his musical studies in the United States, ultimately earning degrees at Indiana University and the Juilliard School. While he doesn't have the name recognition of some other living composers, he's written for any number of high-profile musicians, including Renée Flemming, Yo-Yo Ma, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and at least one album of his works has been nominated for a Grammy Award.
Naturally, that album includes the work we're looking at today.
Just after being hired to the composition faculty at the Juilliard School in 1991, Ranjbaran began working on a set of three pieces known as the Persian Trilogy. (He wrote the last work, Seven Passages, in 2000, so the whole spans quite a bit of his compositional output.) Each piece in the Trilogy is based on an episode from the Shahnameh, an epic poem by the poet Ferdowsi — the longest epic poem by a single author in the world — and it's to the second installment, The Blood of Seyavash (written 1993-4), that we now turn.
Being a ballet, it's rather helpful to know the plot, a high-stakes story of love and betrayal involving the young prince Seyavash. The very abridged version is that the young prince Seyavash is so handsome, talented, and generally excellent that his stepmother, Queen Sudabeh tries to seduce him. When he rebuffs her advances, she accuses him of trying to seduce her, much as in the story of Joseph in Potiphar's house. Seyavash proves his innocence in a literal trial by fire, but when he refuses to kill enemy hostages that he previously promises to spare, he goes into voluntary exile in the enemy kingdom of Turan. Once there, he finds love and happiness with Farangis, the princess of Turan, but the king's brother Garsivaz hates Seyavash and poisons the king against him. Seyavash is put to death, and red tulips spring up where his blood hits the ground. (There is a longer and much more detailed telling at the composer's website, and I highly encourage you to click over there and follow along with the music. It also has pictures of the initial production!)
A lurching dissonance in the strings brings the piece to life, heralding the turmoil to come. (Fittingly enough, the composer identifies this as the "Destiny" theme.) After a tortuous introduction, the music spills over into a much faster gait, tumbling in a headlong rush between brief islands of stability. A lyrical interlude offers some respite from the tumult, but as the passion builds, the music spills back into its frantic mode. Eventually this peters out into a quiet coda, but the wavering oboe solo suggests that all is not entirely well. This unease carries over into the seduction scene, with lavish trills and voluptuous woodwind interjections. Increasingly ornate waves of lusciousness alternate with pockets of increasingly disturbed music, suggesting quite explicitly the different emotions of Seyavash and Sudabeh, culminating in a cry of alarm when the King unexpectedly enters the room.
Rough, pulsing chords begin the Trial by Fire, which functions much as a traditional scherzo would. There is much glittery, hard-edged writing for the woodwinds and brass, suggesting a fire comprised of glittering swirls of fragmented glass. Seyavash is, of course, vindicated, but this only leads to future problems down the line, so the ending is far from triumphant. These problems come to the fore in the agonized fourth movement, which is given over to the prince's tormented inner state as he contemplates giving up everything he's known for the sake of his honor. Ultimately, he decides to do so, and the decision does seem to bring some measure of peace to the movement's final bars.
After the heaviness of that movement, the opening of the Seeds of Envy promises a bit of a reprieve, tho here, too, gloomy pauses lurk. Still, the floridly dancing woodwinds carry more of the day, and an air of perky, sensuous, and slightly sinister mystery prevails. The movement ends much as it began, confirming that this is, indeed, just the start of things to come, and not a complete action in itself. Next up is the love duet, which floats serenely outside the uncertainty and unease of the surrounding movements. (There are hints of the darkness, but only hints.) There are languid, lyrical passages that suggest idle lounging, but also more delicate, precise stretches that suggest nothing so much as a careful, chaste, tentative dance.
None of this is to last. Blaring brass chords announce the final movement, and the mood remains grim as an all-consuming funeral march unfolds. This breaks out into running music not unlike that of the first movement, despite occasional attempts at de-stabilization by the tuba. A few lyrical lines suggest the faintest whiff of hope, but to no avail, as the music builds and builds to its crushing apotheosis. The ballet does not make peace with the tragedy by the end; it goes out with a raw and ravaged cry of anger and despair.