As one of the most celebrated present-day American composers, Robert Paterson does not fear the shadow of a luminous predecessor like Antonio Vivaldi. Paterson’s new album The Four Seasons is the culmination of a 20-year project comprising four song cycles, one for each of our earthly seasons. The prolific composer set texts by well-known poets – Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Carlos Williams, Rita Dove, Billy Collins and others – all on seasonal themes.
A different voice gives life to each cycle, accompanied by the musicians of the composer’s own American Modern Ensemble on flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion. Paterson is a master at composing and arranging for this lineup. Known as a Pierrot ensemble, it gives a composer a wide range of colors in a compact and economical form
The opening of the first piece, a setting of “Summer Music” by May Sarton, suggests a bright sunshiny morning. Handily, the poem includes musical terminology. Paterson illustrates “slow decrescendos” by a descending, echoing melody. Soprano Marnie Breckenridge gives the closing phrase, “[As summer]…Goes golden-buttercup-wild,” just the wild abandon it needs. Breckenridge sings the “Summer” sequence with a glistening golden tone and bright energy. In her poem “The Kite,” Anne Sexton name-checks Ezio Pinza, but Paterson’s motifs have a Mary Poppins blitheness as the lyrics evoke a peacefully breezy but ruminative day on the beach.
The flowing free verse of Sharan Strange’s firefly poem “Childhood” inspires Paterson to musical atmospherics: “Those tiny bodies / pulsing phosphorescence. / They made reckless traffic, / signaling, neon flashes forever / into the deepening dusk.” The next piece evokes the fluttering at dusk of Jennifer O’Grady’s titular “Moths,” and tingling bells illustrate the glinting of light on the Hudson River in Sara Teasdale’s “Summer Night, Riverside.” (All told, this music gains much from having the texts before you. Most of the poems are easy to find online.)
Darker images emerge with the Autumn sequence, sung by mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert. “The hooded houses watch heavily / With oily gold eyes” in Evelyn Scott’s enigmatic short poem “Autumn Dusk in Central Park.” Death and love both visit in Carl Sandburg’s “Under the Harvest Moon,” which the composer sets with a silvery but deathly energy that gives the piece a little of the feel of a French art song. The anxiety of the “countless overwrought housewives” of Dorothea Tannings’ “All Hallow’s Eve” is palpable in Paterson’s quick, rhythmically nervous music for it, and his harmonic sensitivity is at its deepest in his gripping setting of Rita Dove’s “November for Beginners.” (How can a composer resist a poem with a line like “So we wait, breeding / mood, making music / of decline”? And listen for that “cargo of zithers” at the end.)
In Paterson’s hands, May Sarton’s “Leaves before the Wind” develops from a ballad-like cadence to something more epic. The poem ends with the lines “And every hope compassionately lives // Close to despair.” But after a pause, Paterson gives us a peaceful root chord to rest easy on – a surprising touch, but a good way to move us into the icy sparseness of winter, which arrives with Wallace Stevens’ cryptic “Icicles filled the long window.” It’s sung, like the rest of the Winter cycle, with uncomplicated sensitivity by rich-voiced bass-baritone David Neal. Stevens’ “The Snow Man” gives Paterson another medium to evoke the quietude of winter – but his illustration of “the sound of a few leaves” is an ululating shocker.
Similar musical gestures conjure a snowman from a different point of view in Paterson’s haunting setting of “Boy at the Window” by Richard Wilbur. Here the music evokes the fear in the heart of the boy in the poem. The Winter cycle also includes one of the album’s most engaging pieces, the episodic “Dark Day, Warm and Windy,” (a poem by A. R. Ammons), and one of its creepiest, a setting of the stark, soft-spoken “Old Story” by Robert Creeley. The cycle ends with Paterson’s dense, modernist evocation of a snowstorm in New York City (where a number of the poems are set), Billy Collins’ “Neither Snow.”
As spring arrives, tenor Alok Kumar too finds himself in Gotham, singing Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “English Sparrows (Washington Square)” in the trumpet-like tones you’d need to be heard over the city’s din. Paterson cloaks Richard Wilbur’s “April 5, 1974” in a romantic musical-theater setting, with a dramatic, highly singable melody and traditional chord changes to illustrate “winter’s giving ground” and the emergence of spring flowers.
Kumar gives his operatic all in one of the album’s most powerful performances, conveying the trauma of a paved-over garden through rich harmonies stabbed with harsh dissonances in Ann Stanford’s “Done With.” He then softens his touch for the even sadder “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” by William Carlos Williams: as the bereaved speaker “turn[s] away forgetting,” the music gently fills the silence, and when she resumes, her pain is even more evident as she imagines the “trees of white flowers” giving her a place to achieve the oblivion she craves.
Paterson calls on Sara Teasdale again to close out the Spring sequence and the collection on a more positive note. “Spring Rain” recounts a memory of a more golden hue, painted by straightforward major chords and contemplative gestures.
My wife walked in as I was listening to the earlier Teasdale setting (“Summer Night, Riverside”). Though familiar with Paterson, she had never heard this music before, and knew only that it was based on the seasons. Immediately she knew the “current” season was summer. I told her she was right, and she nodded: “That’s how good he is.”
Robert Paterson’s The Four Seasons was released April 29, 2021. Help him belatedly celebrate his 50th birthday by ordering it now through his website.