Threnody for the Prematurely Departed by Kathryn Blake

Brian Patrick Bromberg
15 June, 2022

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Music helps us work through difficult situations in our lives such as grief, loss, abandonment and sorrow. We see this illustrated in pieces like Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, Sibelius’s Finlandia, and John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 written to memorialise those lost in the AIDS pandemic. This month’s article is about Katheryn Blake’s Threnody for the Prematurely Departed, a powerful and moving, musical examination of mental illness and suicide. 

Blake’s piece for solo cello is a set of 5 short ‘stages’, based on the 5 stages of grief.  The composer uses a pitch set derived from the phone number for the suicide prevention hotline, which serves to harmonically unite all of the movements. 

Stage one subtitled ‘Disconnected with reality’, opens with left hand hammer-ons set over open string pizzicatos.  This hammer-on effect, notated with an ‘X’ notehead, is achieved by slamming the left hand fingers hard on to the indicated pitches to produce a sort of barely resonant, dry, woody timbre. It very effectively expresses the frustration that permeates much of this work.

After this rather calm introspective opening we reach the second stage titled ‘Blistering,’ which takes the listener on a blazingly fast, virtuosic, string-crossing jaunt that lasts just over a minute in length.  At first look it may seem like a very difficult movement to play but with slow methodical practise it is totally achievable.  Minimising left hand shifting, and focusing on bow control are the keys to success in this movement.

Stage three opens with the familiar pitch set, this time presented with artificial harmonics.  One of the strongest points of the piece is how Blake has woven a narrative throughout.  From the performer’s perspective, this narrative takes shape not only in the notes we play, but also in the silences between the notes.  Stage three really gives us a chance to explore how space, time, and breath play such an important role in music. 

The next movement brings us to a very slow chromatic melody that starts in the low range of the instrument and weaves its way over a range of 2 octaves.  The opening 20 measures are a test of legato bowing and bow speed control.  If you can keep a consistent dynamic and support of sound throughout, the next section titled ‘Spiraling out of control’ will be even more effective.  These opening measures are also a great opportunity to practise slowly with a background drone note to really refine your intonation.  This movement, which is the longest of the whole piece, also contains the most sustained climax; pacing becomes very important so you can carry the energy over the entire fortissimo passage.

Finally we come to stage five with the subtitle ‘Coming to terms with what is real.’  The pitch set that has been used throughout the piece, finally finds resolution in C.  The dissonances that prevailed earlier disappear and gradually a feeling of diatonicism comes to the surface.  Before this happens though there are some really fun-to-play passages that sound like the melodic line is trying to find its way to this resolution.  The rhythms and articulations are reminiscent of human speech, almost like one melodic fragment asks a question and another gives an answer.

Threnody for the Prematurely Departed is a satisfying piece to play.  It not only challenges the performer technically but also poses a challenge that is beyond the notes on the page.  To execute a successful performance you have to examine how the smaller musical parts fit together to create a larger picture.  At just over 13 minutes to play, this piece is very concisely written; there are no superfluous passages; every note and phrase was carefully composed.  Take a chance and try something new!

Composer’s website: https://kathryn-blake.com/