Charles Fussell (born 1938) was an important figure in the musical life of Boston for over twenty years. Beginning in mid-1980’s, he served on the composition faculty of Boston University, was artistic director of the contemporary music festival New Music Harvest, and was co-founder of the New England Composers Orchestra. His music has been and is still performed frequently by Boston ensembles, in particular Collage New Music, The Cantata Singers, and the Boston Modem Orchestra Project.
Fussell attended the Eastman School of Music where he studied with Thomas Canning and Bernard Rogers, later with Boris Blacher at the Berlin Hochschule. While in Germany he attended the Bayreuth Masterclasses of Friedelind Wagner. In addition to a Fulbright Scholarship he has received a Citation and Award from The American Academy of Arts and Letters plus Ford and Copland Foundation Grants and numerous commissions.
Major works Include six symphonies and three operas. Symphonies No. 3, Landscapes, based on four American poets, and Symphony No. 6, High Bridge, is based on five poems from Hart Crane’s late 1920’S epic, The Bridge. Of the three operas, two are chamber operas; Cymbeline (after Shakespeare), and The Astronaut’s Tale, with a libretto by Jack Larson. Julian, based on a short story of Flaubert, is a full evening’s liturgical drama. Recent recordings include Specimen Days and Being Music, two commissions for the Walt Whitman 1992 Centennial available on Koch records. Symphony No 5, The Astronaut’s Tale, and Right River (a concertino for cello and String Orchestra) are available on Albany records. High Bridge, Prelude for Orchestra and Wilde, Symphony No. 4 for Baritone Solo and Orchestra, have been released by The Boston Modem Orchestra Project.
Fussell currently resides in Woodside, New York, teaches composition at RutgersUniversity, and is President of the Virgil Thomson Foundation.
Program notes for Pilgrim Voyage and Marion in Memory
Some years ago I began reading travel journals with great pleasure, both American and European. Two that stood out were by Isabella Bird, A Lady’s Life in The Rockies (1850’s), and by Francois Augieras, A Journey To Mount Athos (1954). Augieras was born in 1925 inRochester,NY. His father was a French pianist, his mother a Polish émigré. After his father’s death, he returned toParis. The times he spent inAlgiersin 1945 and with the monks ofMt.Athosin the 50’s were great influences on his writing and painting. A friend of Andre Gide, who described his work as a “bizarre delight”, he died in 1974 inFrance, age 46.
Both journals I have mentioned suggested a vivid collection of scenes and adventures that could be given shape in musical movements. Pilgrim Voyage contains eight movements, beginning with the arrival by boat and ending with a final religious ceremony of personal enlightenment.
The ceremonial movements are both religious and erotic. And the over-all tone throughout is of joyful adventure and pleasure. So many possibilities I had to leave out, including being chased by a wild bull in heat, a poo1 of green snakes, and so on. But I hope the steaming summer heat is audible. I was interested to discover Mt Athos had been occupied by Germans during the war, and our hero wore a discarded German uniform when his own clothes became too ragged, still a somewhat dangerous disguise in the 50’s.
Marion Gaffney was a dear friend, whom I met in her 20’s, a recent graduate of Juilliard. She was one of those “natural” pianists who could play the most difficult music with the greatest ease. After teaching several years at the University of Mass in Amherst, Marion decided to pursue a medical career, which she did with great success, becoming a respected psychiatrist in the Worchester area of Massachusetts.
She died suddenly two years ago, age 53. Her loss was a deeply personal one for me. The Elegy recalls her warm presence in so many people’s lives, the loss we all feel, and her wonderful pianistic gifts.
—Charles Fussell, January, 2012