Triptych for solo trumpet and orchestra was written during the Spring of 1991 through a commission from the International Trumpet Guild. It is a three-movement work lasting approximately sixteen minutes. The form is similar to the Christian triptychs in which there is a central panel and two flanking panels half its size that fold over it. Often Mary and the Child occupy the center panel while worshipers gaze upon the scene from each of the two smaller panels. Although there is no religious content in Triptych, the focus of the entire work is on the center or Main Movement. It is the longest and most involved movement including two cadenzas and a variety of moods. The first movement or Introduction is intended to draw one into the second with dramatic and impulsive gestures that leave one feeling the need for more. The third movement or Conclusion serves as a coda with a quick tempo and flourishes in all of the instruments. Thematic material from the first movement is heard again but in a bolder, more positive guise and the work concludes with one more full orchestral outburst.
Three Portraits for tuba and chamber orchestra was written during the late winter and early spring of 1989-90 as a result of a commission from Scott Mendoker. It is a three-movement work approximately eighteen minutes long and, as the title suggests, the movements are each a musical “portrait”. Although portraying three different individuals would have been the normal fare, I chose to profile the same person in each movement. The result is a deeper, multi-leveled image. First impressions are the subject of Portrait One. The individual is funny, friendly, outgoing and the center of attention. The music is light, engaging, even “pop-like”. Portrait Two begins to show a deeper side, more intimate and sensitive. The music is quieter, richer and more delicate compared to Portrait One. Portrait Three, at the outset, shows the individual in crisis: angry, hurt, and confused. The music is angular and complex. As this movement progresses and the initial burst of emotion is spent, the music becomes introverted and a peaceful stillness gradually replaces the pain. Introspection concludes the movement and work.
These Three Portraits, besides profiling Mr. Mendoker, are an exhibition of the range of possibilities for the tuba. Although there are no extra-musical sound effects in the work, the emotional and technical requirements are formidable.
Music by David Sampson (1984-85) Libretto by Johanna Keller, David Sampson
During the spring of 1970, I was completing my first year at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. One afternoon, upon leaving school, I became intrigued by a book fair that was being presented at nearby Rittenhouse Square. Entering the small park, I began to browse through the displays of used books and almost immediately came upon a slim, hardback edition of a book by Mark Twain titled “The War Prayer”. As I flipped the pages, reading the extended poem illustrated with pen and ink scenes, I became caught up in its message. It spoke of the “full import of war”, not just the killing and maiming of one’s own troops, but, the effect on the “enemy”, including the destruction of their land and the pain inflicted on their women and children. It spoke of religious leaders aiding and abetting the war effort, which Twain saw as a gross hypocrisy. Since this was at the height of the Vietnam War and I had seen the photographs and film clips of the devastation not just to our troops but to Vietnam as a whole, and I had witnessed the members of the Lutheran congregation of which I was a part, vote in favor of Johnson’s Vietnam policy, the words rang true. I vowed that someday I would set this poem to music.
As time passed and I went from student to teacher, I noticed how quickly Vietnam was forgotten or in the case of the next generation never remembered. I saw a high school student body ready to grab weapons and “destroy Iran” because of Americans taken hostage. I saw the vehemence and hatred in the eyes of these teenagers as “war fever” again swept across the country. The message of “The War Prayer” came back to me.
Shortly afterward, I received my chance to set the poem through a fellowship grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a residency from the McDowell Colony. Coincidentally, I was in the middle of doctorate work at the Manhattan School of Music studying with John Corigliano, who had just finished the first act of his “Ghosts of Versailles” for the Metropolitan Opera. Needing guidance in the writing of the libretto, I contacted a poet/writer/singer friend by the name of Johanna Keller who agreed to help me shape a singable text out of Twain’s narrative. We spent many long hours tossing ideas around, literally piecing the text together from scraps of paper strewn all over Johanna’s living room floor. I then tested out our ideas with Vern Arens, minister at Brookside Community Church, the church at which I was music director. We realized that as we were expanding on the reactions of Twain’s congregation, we were really contemplating the reactions of Brookside. The parallels were natural considering the church was founded in 1894 in rural New Jersey and has continued to maintain its country church flavor to this day.
With the libretto complete and a strong sense of the essential dramatic direction, I began writing the music during the fall of 1984 and completed the work during the summer of 1985 at the McDowell Colony. The premiere was scheduled to take place in New York the following season but had to be cancelled. I then experienced over the next several years the difficulty in scheduling an opera even in concert version by a composer not known for his choral works. While I was having great success with my chamber and orchestral works, this piece seemed too risky. Finally, Frances Slade, director of Princeton Pro Musica, studied the work and indicated to me that she wanted to perform it. On May 20, 1995, in Princeton, NJ, twenty-five years after the accidental discovery of the only poem ever written by Mark Twain, “The War Prayer” was performed.
Simple Lives written in 1990 on commission from the Colonial Symphony to celebrate their fortieth anniversary was premiered during the spring of 1991 with Yehuda Gilad conducting. The work is dedicated to the Colonial Symphony and is also intended to honor my grandmother, Eunice Sampson and her two sisters, Naomi Magnuson and Edna Friedstrom. The three sisters were residents of Orion, Illinois, a small, rural town about 160 miles south of Chicago. From my visits as a young boy, I remember the family farm with its chickens underfoot and horses to be broken and acres and acres of cornfields. I also remember all of the relatives fixing their cherished covered dishes when the folks from back East would visit them each summer. My memories were warm and comforting. When I was about twelve, we stopped visiting Orion and my memories became influenced in time with my experiences as a young musician in Philadelphia and New York. The lives of my relatives began to seem hopelessly old-fashioned. As an adult, I began to visit Orion once more and got to know Eunice, Naomi, and Edna again. What I found were lives that were marvelously rich in directness, humor and spirituality. What I once thought of as simple and old-fashioned turned out to be focused and consistent. Simple Lives reflects that change of perspective and honors their example. My grandmother, Eunice, in her late nineties, passed away while I was writing Simple Lives. Naomi died shortly thereafter at the age of one hundred and nine. Edna, lived several more years and died at one hundred and four.