Before William Hill wrote a note of "The Raven" — a tone poem for orchestra and chorus based on Edgar Allan Poe's poem of the same name — the principal timpanist for the Colorado Symphony spent months reading the poem out loud and studying everything he could find. A recorded version of Hill's work is set to be released on Friday, February 2.
In his research, Hill — who in his 38th year with the Colorado Symphony and has composed nearly 170 pieces — discovered Poe's 1846 essay, "The Philosophy of Composition," in which the poet describes in detail how he composed "The Raven."
Hill says that one of the things that struck him from reading was that Poe knew what he wanted "The Raven" to be about before he wrote a single word.
"He wanted it to be about human loss and sadness and how various people deal with that in the different stages," Hill says. "And he also knew that he wanted the poem to be able to be read in one sitting. He didn't want something that you'd have to read two hours tonight and two hours tomorrow night or whatever."
In the essay, Poe mentioned that he wrote "The Raven"'s climactic scene, in which the narrator is going crazy and screaming at the imaginary bird, first. When Hill started his five-month journey composing his piece "The Raven," which uses all eighteen stanzas of Poe's poem, he started with final stanzas as well.
"Poe said the most beautiful human emotion is melancholy, of all things," Hill says. "But how true is it something beautiful rather than smiling almost brings us to tears? Or something sad — we can find a beauty in the sadness. I was really trying to go into the depth of all those things with the use of the chorus and the orchestra."
Hill originally wrote the piece for the Colorado Symphony Chorus, incorporating everything from twelve-tone technique to neo-romanticism; he says it was a wonderful challenge. He also worked in Richard Wagner's leitmotif technique and used different musical gestures for various parts of the poem, as when the words "nevermore" or "Lenore" are used or to symbolize the imaginary bird or the protagonist's ever-changing mental state.
The composer says he doesn't like to repeat himself, so he varies the gestures slightly every time they're used, by doing things like changing the keys. The Colorado Symphony and Chorus premiered the piece in March 2015, with David Lockington conducting and Duain Wolfe directing the chorus; they had eight members of the chorus separated from the rest of the group; their voices were run through digital delay effects to create wind sounds that swirled around the back of the audience.
Wolfe said Hill's piece was a "noble challenge" for the chorus, and Hill says it was particularly demanding.
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"Duain actually said it's probably the hardest thing he's ever worked on with the chorus," Hill says. "I knew I was writing really difficult stuff, and I knew they would be able to do it with Duain's direction."
Although Poe's "The Raven" was written in 1845, Hill thinks the poem stands up beautifully today.
"Dealing with the loss of a loved one is something everybody in the world deals with," Hill says. "The language changes a little bit to the specific words we choose, but the ideas behind this poem I think are absolutely universal, and they're going to be just has important in another 200 years or so."
"The Raven" will be released on February 2. Recordings will be available at the Colorado Symphony Guild Shop inside Gallery 1 in Boettcher Concert Hall, open before most performances. "The Raven" will also be available for direct digital download through iTunes and Amazon.