Tell-Tale Harp from Philadelphia Stories | Michael Daugherty, composer

Tell-Tale Harp
from Philadelphia Stories (2001)

Instrumentation: 2 solo harps; 4 flutes (I=piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon; 4 horns, 4 trumpets; timpani, 4 percussion; guitar; organ or synthesizer; strings

Publisher: Boosey and Hawkes, Hendon Music (BMI)

Duration: 7 minutes

World Premiere: November 15, 2001 / Academy of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania / Philadelphia Orchestra / David Zinman, conductor

Program Note:

Tell-Tale Harp is an eight-minute arabesque for two solo harps and orchestra. I imagine this movement beginning after the stroke of midnight, in the ghostly streets of Philadelphia: one of America’s most haunted cities, and the place where Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) lived and wrote some of his most famous tales of horror. In The Tell-Tale Heart (1843), Poe tells the story of a murderer who thinks he hears the heart of his dead victim hidden under the floor of his house. The heart seems to beat louder and louder, until he finally shrieks to the police, “I admit the deed!–tear up the planks!–here,here!–it is the beating of his hideous heart!” Poe’s poems, much admired by the French Symbolists, are also haunted by obsessive rhythms and ghostly echoes.

Because Poe often invoked the lute and the lyre in his lyric poetry, I chose the harp as the primary musical instrument for this movement. Two solo harpists are positioned stereophonically on the stage, and surrounded by the impressionistic, spectral sound world of the orchestra. The harps play rolling chords in a periodic pulse, like the beating of a heart. I cast a long shadow by spinning a slow tune in a minor key, first heard in the harps and then echoed by the English horn, bassoon, and finger cymbals. This haunting melody is contrasted with faster ostinato sections, consisting of compulsively repeated patterns. In Tell-Tale Harp, to quote Poe himself, we hear “spirits moving musically, To a lute’s well-tuned law.”

–Michael Daugherty