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For Pity Divine

For piano/singer, harpsichord, soprano, baritone, 2 flutes, viola, and cello

duration ~ 7 minutes


Poetry by Colin Browne
Commissioned by Music on Main
Premiered on July 17, 2014 at The Cultch in Vancouver BC


For Pity Divine was commissioned by Music on Main for their immersive project The Orpheus Project.


Here is some information on the piece through a short questionnaire prepared by Emma Lancaster for the composers who participated in this project.


Tell us about your inspiration assignment.

My inspiration is Handel's Pena tiranna, a beautiful, serene, and graceful aria from the opera Amadigi di Gaula, HWV 11.


Having worked closely with David since his initial creative bursts for The Orpheus Project, this aria was something we would listen to while talking about the project. And so it became a sort of theme for The Orpheus Project. This aria has come to represent, for me, both the historical and abstract nature of Orpheus’s character, and I think that is at the core of my inspiration for this assignment.


In addition to the aria, I had Colin Browne’s beautiful text to set into Handel’s sound world. A lot of the inspiration for what to do the aria came from the lyrics as they suggested a tragic, yet melancholic peace—a calm before a storm.


How did that inform your composition?

I know about Orpheus because there are texts, operas, films, and stories about him. Each of these re-tellings of Orpheus’s life has its own unique way of adding to his character, and the opportunity to rearrange (or reimagine) a Handel aria as a way of telling a new story about Orpheus informed my composition heavily. I like that we can use historical references and past works to find new ways of expressing contemporary issues and ideas. And in re-working the Handel aria I did not want to just arrange it, but rather recreate it and draw a line bewteen today and the past.


Did the physical site play a role in your musical choices?

Yes, and I also knew where my piece was placed in the context of the night. So in addition to the physical site playing a role in my process, its placement at the end of the night was really important in terms of musical choices. Not only did I have the entire ensemble to work with, but I also knew that it was going to end the audience’s journey throughout The Cultch, a journey which is both physical and abstract, new and familiar.


Did you have any connection to the Orpheus myths/stories before this project? Do you now?

Yes, I knew a few stories about Orpheus. But perhaps the story I most had a connection with was the story of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld to rescue Eurydice. In a book called Forbidden Knowledge by American writer Roger Shattuck, he uses Orpheus’s myth of looking back at Eurydice to raise the question: is there knowledge that humanity is better off not knowing? I connected to this reading of the myth because I like how relevant Orpheus becomes. As Shattuck writes, it’s true that “everything has been said. But nobody listens. Therefore it has to be said all over again-only better.” I think this is why Orpheus’s story will continue to be explored and re-told, likely forever.


For Pity Divine

Colin Browne


At last, contentment

Sleeping with starlight

No longer longing

For love’s release


Happy, the man is

Swimming in reed beds

No longer longing

For love’s release


One has no master

And no tormentor

When he refuses Mercy divine

He turns his back on Mercy divine.


Happy, the man is

Sleeping in starlight

No longer longing

For love’s release

Free of his longing

For pity divine

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