Blackbird Variations

I remember listening to Blackbird Variations by Robert Dennis and wanting for a  hint of the song by the Beatles. Soon after I learned that the piece performed by the American Brass Quintet on the recording titled New American Brass released in 1992, was based on the poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by  Wallace Stevens.

In a 1998 review by Elliot Schwartz in American Music about Blackbird Variations  he wrote: 

  • “His decision to set the poems as a series of quasi-programmatic instrumental vignettes, rather than songs with explicit text, is most interesting. In this reviewer’s opinion, thirteen brief variations-while faithful to the original poetic “thirteen ways” seems an overly large number. Seven or eight would have created a more tightly integrated work, and underscored the music’s tangential (rather than literal) relationship to the Stevens poetry. But this is a minor quibble. Dennis has created some highly effective tone painting, often quite moving in its subtle use of mutes, imitative passages, and mysterious chord blocks. In addition, an organic sense of growth pervades the whole.“

I agree with Schwartz’s point about it being a bit long, however, I can’t help appreciating the piece a bit more because of the literal connection in length to the poem. The audience may also appreciate this if this fact is pointed out, or even a  reading of the poem while the piece is performed.

Schwartz, Elliott. American Music, vol. 16, no. 2, 1998, pp. 246–249. JSTOR,  www.jstor.org/stable/3052575.

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