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Goblin Market

author of text

So far, Kernis has not written an opera: but one work has been singled out, since its first performance, as showing he has remarkable operatic potential. This is Goblin Market, a setting for narrator and large ensemble of Christina Rossetti’s poem of the same name, written in 1859 and first published in 1862. This haunting, enigmatic and highly suggestive poem was one that Rossetti herself warned ‘was not suitable for children’, though she later changed her mind on this. Its sensuously over-ripe and indeed sexual imagery, within the framework of what seems a dark fairy-tale about sisterly love, gives it a resonance that challenges any simple interpretation. In Laura’s eating of the goblins’ proffered fruits there are clear parallels with the Biblical story of Eve, the serpent and the forbidden fruit; her hunger for more of the fruit and her decline when denied it seems like a metaphor for drug addiction. Lizzie’s ordeal in being drenched with the juice of the fruit, and Laura’s licking it from her skin, have sensual overtones far at variance with mid-Victorian repression, though the eventual happy ending seems to satisfy the moral demands of the time.

Kernis composed his setting in 1994-5, accompanying the (preferably female) narrator with an ensemble consisting of five woodwind players (three of them doubling on various instruments), horn, trumpet, piano, four strings (violin, viola, cello, bass) and a very large percussion ensemble wielded by two players. It was a commission from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group jointly devised with Trestle Theatre Company and Writer/Director Toby Wilsher, the Trestle’s Artistic Director. Kernis has written that he envisaged no specific staging for his work, but the world premiere—which was staged, with masks and mimes—set the story in a contemporary dystopia, with the sisters as hungry beggars and the goblins as ghostly barrow-boys in a deserted fruit and vegetable warehouse: rather far from Rossetti’s sense-bewitching pastoral setting. This took place in London in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 12 January 1995 with Mary King as narrator and the BCMG conducted by Daniel Harding. Later in January the staged production went on tour throughout the UK; the work was later presented in concert, without staging, at the 1996 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and subsequently in the US.

Kernis divides his setting into two parts, arranged in scenes like a stage work, and prefaces the whole with a Misterioso scene-setting introduction whose evocative languor immediately defines an atmosphere between dream and fairy-tale (with already some dark undertones) and shows the composer’s skill at making his small ensemble sound like a full orchestra. The jazzy, angular opening of the first scene then shows that Kernis can write in quite another style. In fact, as the tale unfolds—the narrator’s part is strictly notated rhythmically—the music continually reveals new aspects, new colours, new strategies. Kernis’s language ranges effortlessly between Stravinskyian rhythmic drive, Bergian lyricism, decadent chromatic expansion, iridescent impressionism à la Debussy and Ravel, jazzy syncopation, folk-fiddling and so on. Every player is at some time a soloist, and every conceivable combination of instruments is used to support, undercut, or illustrate Rossetti’s text, producing a work which is a tour-de-force of vivid orchestration and theatrical narration.

In scoring Goblin Market, Kernis has used specific instruments as analogues of particular characters in the poem. For example the curious, reckless, sensual Laura is embodied by the viola, with its initial long, rising line. The role of her sister Lizzie, who saves her by undergoing the ordeal at the hands of the goblins, is taken by the violin. The goblins themselves are often represented by the woodwind section, with motivic material imbued with semitones and trills: single woodwind colours delineate their animalistic qualities (‘the cat-faced purred, the rat-faced spoke a word of welcome’). In addition, and following in the grand tradition of Romantic music-drama from Wagner on, Kernis employs a network of leitmotifs (leading motives—melodies or strongly characterized short elements) to represent the recurring characters, events and psychological states. A particularly prominent example is the use of trills and flutter-tonguing (a distinctive effect made by vibrating the tongue or back of the throat) in woodwind and brass instruments, which evokes the way Laura is inhibited and robbed of strength by the goblins’ deadly fruits.

Goblin Market is also a memorial piece: it bears the dedication ‘in memory of David Huntley’. Huntley (1948-1994), head of promotion at the music publishers Boosey & Hawkes in New York, was an engaging personality and in his lifetime one of the most intelligent and amiable advocates for contemporary music in the USA. His interests and friendships, on both sides of the Atlantic, extended far beyond the Boosey & Hawkes catalogue, and his early death was felt as a grave loss throughout the American new music community. Many composers wrote pieces in his memory, and Kernis had already contributed a short piece that was played at his memorial service.

from notes by Malcolm MacDonald © 2010


Kernis: Goblin Market
Studio Master: SIGCD186Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Part 1 No 1: Introduction: Misterioso
Part 1 No 2 Scene 1: With energy  Morning and evening
Track 2 on SIGCD186 [1'52] Download only
Part 1 No 3 Scene 2: Tranquil  Evening by evening
Track 3 on SIGCD186 [4'49] Download only
Part 1 No 4 Scene 3: Slowly, with swagger  One set his basket down
Track 4 on SIGCD186 [3'52] Download only
Part 1 No 5 Scene 4: Meno  Lizzie met her at the gate
Track 5 on SIGCD186 [6'42] Download only
Part 2 No 1 Scene 1: [untitled]  Early in the morning
Track 6 on SIGCD186 [10'56] Download only
Part 2 No 2 Scene 2: Presto  Laughed every goblin
Track 7 on SIGCD186 [6'00] Download only
Part 2 No 3 Scene 3: With movement: Exuberant  She cried, 'Laura', up the garden
Track 8 on SIGCD186 [7'46] Download only
Part 2 No 4: Epilogue: Moderato  Days, weeks, months, years
Track 9 on SIGCD186 [2'40] Download only

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