Christopher Theofanidis

Press Kit

Muse (2007) for string and harpsichord

I. brilliant, fiery
II. with a light touch, ornate
III. willful, deliberate

Duration: 12 minutes
FIRST PERFORMANCE: December 2007/ Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, photo by Larry Fink
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Watch Muse for strings and harpsichord
Portland Youth Philharmonic / David Hattner, Musical Director; Wieden+Kennedy Building Portland, Oregon

I wrote Muse in 2007 for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra as part of their series called “The New Brandenburgs” in which that ensemble commissioned six composers to write new works based on the instrumentation of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti.  Bach wrote these pieces as a kind of job audition for a post in Brandenburg- a post which he ironically did not get, but these pieces have become a part of the repertory in any case.  They each have a distinctive orchestration because of the peculiar make-up of the Brandenburg court orchestra, which had benefited from the disbanding of a great orchestra in Berlin and had received some of their star players.  Each of them can be played as a kind of large chamber ensemble or as a small orchestra piece.

I was given the third Brandenburg concerto instrumentation which is for strings and harpsichord, though the strings are not divided in the standard orchestral division of five parts, but rather in ten- 3 violins, 3 violas, 3 ‘cellos, and contrabass.  Bach used this breakdown to great effect by thickening each of the principle lines in 3- using a broader paint brush for each of the parts of the counterpoint.  Despite this, he remarkably achieves a light and transparent sound, and I tried to move toward this way of working in my piece. 

The general sound world is also quite closely Baroque in harmony and rhythm.
The first movement has a running sixteenth note figure, which is actually a minor triple-meter version of the main melodic line in the first movement of the Bach.  This is balanced by a short motive of three repeated notes followed by a single lower note.
The second movement is highly ornate with a long-lined melody always in the background.  The third movement is based on one of my favorite Bach chorale tunes (though he himself adapted it from  a Medieval period chant), Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland.

At the end of the commissioning cycle, all six works will be played with their Bach counterparts.  The other composers represented are Peter Maxwell Davies, Aaron Jay Kernis, Paul Moravec, Melinda Wagner, and Stephen Hartke, and given the idea of having each of us write a work with Bach at the heart of it, the title Muse seemed appropriate.

—Christopher Theofanidis

Interview for Muse
[Christopher Theofanidis, composer / Aaron Grad, interviewer]