Both compositions, Tituli and Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain, were written especially for these performers; the US premieres took place in January, 2001 at the University of Southern California, where Hartke teaches composition. Later that year, Tituli was one of the top three finalists for the Pulitzer prize in music.
The idea to compose a piece based on old Latin inscriptions first occurred to Hartke in 1993 when he was a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, but it was not until 1998 that he began to work at it, having decided to set the texts for violin, percussion, and male voices – specifically the Hilliard Ensemble. “I had long admired them, but I did not know them personally,” says Hartke. “Thanks to Michelle Makarski, the basic notion and the texts were presented to them, and they immediately accepted.”
Makarski recently recalled the genesis of Tituli: “Once during a conversation in early 1998, Stephen mentioned to me that he had always had a desire to write for the Hilliards – he was a longtime admirer of theirs. In fact, he had this wild idea of a piece for them involving me and also marimbas, using different pre-Roman inscriptions as texts, things discovered carved into stone and other materials. In Old Latin, no less! I had to chuckle at this – it brought together so many of his various loves; early languages, the violin, pre- classical antiquity, the Hilliards, marimbas. But coming from Stephen, I knew this was no hodge-podge. He had already created this sound-world in his mind’s ear and he knew precisely what he needed.
“Talking to Manfred Eicher later, I mentioned all this,” she continued. “He was immediately intrigued and said he’d put the idea before the Hilliards when he saw them at Sankt Gerold – they would soon be recording Mnemosyne. They agreed, and fortuitously, our ECM label-mate Thomas Larcher offered us the chance to premiere at his Klangspuren Festival in Schwaz, Austria.”
The seven movements of Tituli explore various texts, ranging from declarations of law and military victory to an epitaph from the grave of a small boy named Optatus (meaning “the desired one”). “The final two movements involve compilations of quite short texts,” notes Hartke. “‘Sortes’ is a collection of oracular texts, most of them scratched on metal foil or on rods that were used for fortune- telling. The last movement, ‘Instrumenta,’ sets inscriptions from personal belongings. The first three texts are in Etruscan with the remainder in Latin, and each has either the name of the owner or of the person who presented the object as a gift.”
Takamura Kotaro’s Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain pays tribute to the awe and ecstasy the poet felt on seeing the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. “Ever since reading this poem in Hiroaki Sato’s elegant translation more than 20 years ago, I’ve wanted to set it,” comments Hartke. “During rehearsals for Tituli, the Hilliard Ensemble asked for an unaccompanied piece for four voices, and I knew I had found the ideal medium for this text.”
“Intelligence, wit and sensitivity in the setting of texts – I think that these are the characteristics of Stephen Hartke’s music that I find most appealing,” states Gordon Jones of the Hilliard Ensemble. “Add to that part-writing which is always effective and a remarkable sense of scale in the music and you have the beginnings of a winning formula. It’s not unknown for us to say to a composer, ‘That’s a nice piece but perhaps it’s a couple of minutes too long’; that has never yet happened in the case of Stephen’s compositions – in spite of their being far from short! There is a tremendous emotional range in the pieces too,” he continues, “from the exhilarating rainstorm in Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain to the profoundly touching fourth movement of Tituli. It’s not often that we are presented with music of this scope and scale and we feel privileged to be its recipients.” The Hilliard Ensemble expands its relationship with the composer this September, when they make their New York Philharmonic debut as the soloists in the premiere performance of Hartke’s Symphony No. 3. This opening work of the Philharmonic’s subscription season was commissioned in remembrance of September 11, 2001.
Tituli / Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain is the first ECM New Series title to be released in hybrid CD/SACD format, meaning that it can be played on either a standard CD player or on a Super Audio CD player. SACD format provides superior sonic warmth and clarity, thanks to the Direct Stream Digital system (DSD), which samples music at 64 times the rate of conventional CDs. This album is currently available in the US only.