Tableaux at the Hirshhorn, with Lisa Emenheiser, Piano

Lisa Emenheiser presented the premiere performance of Tableaux for piano on February 4, 2023. Lisa Emenheiser’s performance, for which I have included the notes, begins at 31.28.

Tableaux for piano solo

Part One

1. Prelude

2. Resonances (“Rainbow Resonances”)

3. Opposites: (A) Anthem (B) “Hatred Destroys the World”

Part Two

4. Jangle

Part Three

5. Partita-Variations: “Every soul is precious”


While over the years I have written generously for piano in chamber works, including Homage to the Breath, Quartet from Arch, Light Dances, and Sonata in Four Parts, Tableaux is my first solo piano work in a long time, and represents my attempt tomake an original contribution to the genre, always something of a touchstone for me, as it embodies both the public and private spheres of making music.

Tableaux’s music, cast in three large parts, was created for the pianist Lisa Emenheiser. The tableaux are a suite of short- to medium-length pieces of abstract, non-referential music. Above all, the music is well, just music, and specifically, music for piano solo in the solo tradition as practiced across styles and instruments from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book to the present day. Rainbow reflections uses the full reverberance of the piano, with an improvisatory freedom; Jangle’s pianism is one of percussive and rhythmic physicality; elsewhere the piano is used as if to create a multi-voice chorus. In the latter, the musicalso invokes literary texts, for which the composer offers the following comment:

1. In Part I, Opposites refers to Lithuania of the 1990s, as a young country grappling with both independence and historical memory. The piano’s music was created from shards of street signs. Anthem (No. 3A) alludes to a billboard seen all over the country, with the fervent words “Buk sociailai Aktyvus”—roughly “Be socially active. Hey! Who will build the country if not you?”). While listeners won’t hear a real chorus, I imagined a chorus singing, like the choruses that played such a prominent role in Lithuania’s independence. In contrast, the imaginary chorus that sings Hatred Destroys the World (No. 3B) evokes historical memory. The title refers to an interview given by the late humanitarian Irene Veisaite—whosetestimony is quoted–and to the stone marker, in Yiddish and Lithuanian, standing along Zydu Street in Vilnius commemorating the location of the Small Vilna ghetto — where in fall 1941 more than 11,000 Jews were driven to their deaths. In Hatred Destroys the World it is required that the pianist speak (or half-speak) and sing in English and in Yiddish. The pianistic style might be said to evoke Busoni’s arrangements of Bach’s chorale preludes, but the embedded chorale is not a Lutheran melody; instead it evokes a complex quilt of the recent past, fragments stitched together from shards of the street. The Opposites are the billboard, expressing a fervent wish for the future–and the commemorative marker, asking us not to forget the past in building the future. The poignant words of Irene Veisaite’s are a directive for our days.

Jangle makes up the entirety of Tableaux Part II.

2. Part III’s music is fashioned from an original chorale melody inspired by the phrase “Every soul is precious”. These words appear in De Profundis, an essay about a near-death experience by my long-time friend and collaborator, the photographer, writer and musician Brian Peterson. (The full essay is appended in the score’s Afterward). Returning to consciousness, the author mutters “Every Soul is Precious” and with great effort reaches his camera, snaps, and subsequently sends a shot out into the email ether, later asking “Why? Why did I bother?” His answer?

“what was inside was now outside. What wanted to be born, had been born…until the search for something real, something true, had a wisp of a chance to be shared with someone else.”

In these concise, and yes, desperate words of the differently abled, my friend illuminates the resonant message: Every soul is precious.

Five variations on the tune follow its initial presentation, leading to a short coda.

Text fragments invoked by the pianist in Part Three:

“Every soul…is precious…ah.. [vocalise]… De profundis clamavi…

An emptiness…waiting to be filled….

I wept! I wept uncontrollably…and without shame…Oh. [vocalise]…

Why? Why did I bother?..

Who are you?”

* In Part I, the texts for Opposites 3A and 3B appear in Ellen Cassedy We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). Used with kind permission of the author.

Irene Veisaite was a survivor who lost her entire family and who was confined in Kovno (Kaunas) ghetto. After Lithuanian Independence, in the 1990s Veisaite became a voice for reconciliation, forcefully advocating that truth and memory must continue to guide a path forward for the country, now also free of the particulars of history suppressed during the long Soviet occupation of Lithuania. The granite commemorative marker to which the music refers stands along Zydu gave in Vilnius and reads: “Here, on this spot…stood the gate of the Small Vilna Ghetto. Through it, between the 6th of September and the 29th of October, 1941 11,000 Jews were driven to their deaths.” May the young people of Lithuania have courage to continue to build a society free of hatred.

Stephen Jaffe’s Tableaux was commissioned by Dorothy Marschak for the 21st Century Consort and dedicated to pianist Lisa Emenheiser in memory of Deborah Marschak. The world premiere was held at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on Feburary 4, 2023 at 5:00 PM.

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