The Alphabet of Revelation
A piano quartet. The piece can be found on the Ligonier Ministries CD, The Alphabet of Revelation.

Duration: 28'
Difficulty: 4/5

  • I. The Treachery of Images
  • II. The Persistence of Memory
  • III. The Melancholy of Departure
  • IV. Dance

Click here to view the score.

I. The Treachery of Images

II. The Persistence of Memory

III. The Melancholy of Departure

IV. Dance

Program Notes
The Alphabet of Revelation is an abstract musical meditation on four 20th century paintings that spontaneously floated to the surface of my mind while I was thinking about how to approach the composition of a piano quartet commissioned by Ruth Meints and the Azusa Pacific Chamber Players. In large part, the process of composing was driven by the curiosity to find out why these particular paintings suggested themselves and to discover what kind of story they were trying to tell me. The four paintings are: The Treachery of Images (1929) by René Magritte, The Persistence of Memory (1931) by Salvadore Dalí, Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure) (1914) by Giorgio de Chirico and Dance, Issy-les-Moulineaux (1909-10 ) by Henri Matisse.

Each movement of the quartet is titled after one of the paintings. Unlike other works inspired by visual art, such as Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, I made little attempt to musically “depict” images from the paintings, but rather allowed the music to range freely in reflection on the ideas that the images suggested to me. The whole quartet owes much of its musical vocabulary to jazz, a genre of significant influence when the paintings were created. Following are notes for each of the four movements:

The Treachery of Images

The Treachery of Images is one of Magritte’s best-known paintings. Below a large pipe are the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). With this sly comment, Magritte gets us to think about the complex relationships between an image and the thing it represents. The music begins with a huge block chord, the very essence of solidity and certainty. “A pipe IS a pipe,” it seems to say. Out of this chord, however, notes begin to slide, with tenuous glissandi at first, eventually forming into scales and drifting upward like smoke, underlaid by an ambiguous harmonic progression. The scales gradually move faster and faster, building to a climax when suddenly the music takes a left turn and the strings deliver a series of crunching rhythmic dissonances over which the piano introduces the primary theme of the quartet, an angular melody composed of short motifs of thirds and fifths linked by fragments of scales. Soon the music turns left again, becoming a circus waltz before winding down to a short development section constructed from elements of the waltz and the primary theme. A restatement of the primary theme in the strings gives way to a return of the scales, along with a series of block chords which, instead of connoting certainty, now become part of a flurry of notes which rise and fall, finally subsiding into the spare voices which waft upward and drift away, ending the movement with a question mark.

The Persistence of Memory

One of Dalí’s most recognizable works, The Persistence of Memory gives us a surrealistic landscape of melting watches, each set to a different time, along with marauding ants and a distorted image of the artist’s own face, deflated like a balloon. It’s a powerful picture of a world that has lost its certainties. The music takes shape as an ironic scherzo, characterized by a climbing jazz riff for piano, built from the thirds of the the primary theme, and answered by its fifths in the violin. The rhythm of the riff becomes the basis of a jazz tune developed from these fifths. The middle section of the movement derives from the glissandi of the first and reflects my own aversion to ants, a common pestilence in southern California. The ambiguous harmonic progression of the first movement brackets this section, accompanying newly improvised melodic and rhythmic material. The movement finishes with a return of the jazz tune and a series of climbing chords reminiscent of the scales at the opening of the quartet.

The Melancholy of Departure

Early in his career, Giorgio De Chirico painted a series of Italian street scenes. But unlike the bustling Parisian streets of the French impressionists, De Chirico’s streets were stark and lonely places, full of shadows but disturbingly devoid of life. The music of the third movement is about loneliness, both experienced and observed. The principal material is developed from the primary theme, but the waltz theme, the scales, the harmonic progression and the climbing chords we have heard before each make their appearance in an altered state. Even an apparent excursion to parts unknown in the middle section is based on material from the primary theme.

Dance

By contrast, Dance is a painting of joy and vitality. As I reflected on this wonderful painting, the words of T. S. Eliot echoed in my mind: “at the still point of the turning world, there the dance is.” A seeming contradiction, the “still point” and the “dance” co-inhabiting the same point in space and time. All of these ideas soaked into my thinking about the fourth movement. About midway through work on the first three movements, I realized that the fourth was not going to bring together the material from these movements in some final, transformed and triumphant form, but that it was going to be radically “other.” This realization felt like a discovery rather than a decision on my part. Accordingly, there is very little confluence between the fourth and the first three movements -- alert listeners may recognize a few familiar shards. It’s almost as if the best response to the angst of the first three paintings is not an explanation, but a letting go of explanations, in the whirling motion of the dance that circles joyously at the still point of the turning world.

Mulling over the big picture, I suspect the story these four paintings tell me is one of spiritual transformation, the upheaval of change through a process of questioning one’s cherished certainties, watching them melt in a harsh Spanish light or be overrun by ants, walking through the disorientation, loneliness and alienation which the loss of fixed assurance leaves in its wake, and finally discovering the dance that awaits at the end of the path. The quartet’s title, The Alphabet of Revelation, is taken from a 1929 painting by Magritte. This painting features four symbols, organized clockwise from top left, a pipe, a key, a leaf, and a goblet. The pipe reminds me of The Treachery of Images, the key of The Persistence of Memory, the leaf of The Melancholy of Departure, and the goblet, enduring symbol of both high spirits and Eucharist, reminds me of the Dance.
Commission and Performance History
The Alphabet of Revelation was commissioned by Ruth Meints of the Azusa Pacific Chamber Players and premiered on 18 January 2003 in Los Angeles. Recorded by the commissioning ensemble, it appears on the Ligonier Ministries CD, The Alphabet of Revelation.