Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge

Benjamin Britten

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Date of Composition: 2020, Duration: 7 minutes

In the spring of 2020, Yale University School of Music undertook a project titled Postcards from Confinement, in which they asked faculty, students, and alumni to create musical media in honor of the victims of COVID-19. Pulitzer Prize-winning composition professor Alan Jay Kernis (b. 1960) responded with the piano piece Elegy (for those we lost), dedicating it not specifically those who had died, but instead to their families and to the medical workers who fought so valiantly in those early days of the pandemic. These two groups were intimately connected, as at the time, medical personnel were often the only ones physically present as victims battled the disease in their final days. After completing the work, Kernis commissioned filmmaker Esther Shubinski to collaborate on a short film, in which 51 families share both celebratory and heartbreaking photographic and video images of their loved ones who died, all set against the haunting strains of Elegy. Since that initial effort, the composer has rearranged the piece for string orchestra, full orchestra, string quartet, and various chamber ensembles. His notes on the score indicate his hope that “through this short work … listeners can find a space of solace to reflect, remember, and mourn those we have lost—known or unknown to us, and allow us to find compassion to share this time as brothers and sisters together.”

*According to the Center for Disease Control, in February 2020, 31 Americans had succumbed to COVID-19. By May, that number mushroomed to 112,084 and by year end—when Pfizer’s first vaccines were approved and became available to medical providers, the older population, and those with underlying conditions—more than 380,000 people had died in the U.S. of the disease. As of February 2023, that number has topped more than one million—an astonishing figure for sure, but one far better than what the human toll might have been if stay-at-home orders were not issued and had an immunization for public use not been formulated so quickly.

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2023

About Aaron Jay Kernis

I wrote Elegy (to those we lost) during the pandemic month of May 2020, when it became clear that the toll of covid-19 on human lives was truly devastating. I hope through this short work that listeners can find a space of solace to reflect, remember and mourn those we have lost — known or unknown to us, and allow us to find compassion to share this time as brothers and sisters together.

~ Aaron Jay Kernis

Winner of the 2002 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, 1998 Pulitzer Prize, and 2012 Nemmers Prize, Aaron Jay Kernis is one of America’s most honored composers. His music appears prominently on concert programs worldwide, and he has been commissioned by America’s preeminent performing organizations and artists, including the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco, Toronto, and Melbourne (AU) Symphonies, Los Angeles and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestras, Walt Disney Company, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Renee Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Joshua Bell, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and Sharon Isbin.

Recent and upcoming commissions include his 4th Symphony for the New England Conservatory (for its 150th anniversary) and Nashville Symphony; concerti for violinist James Ehnes, cellist Joshua Roman, violist Paul Neubauer, and flutist Marina Piccinini; a horn concerto for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Grant Park Music Festival; a work for the Borromeo String Quartet; and a piece for the San Francisco Girls and Brooklyn Youth Choruses with The Knights for the New York Philharmonic Biennial.

His works have been recorded on Virgin, Dorian, Arabesque, Phoenix, Argo, Signum, Cedille and many other labels. Recent recordings include his Goblin Market, and Invisible Mosaic II (Signum); Three Flavors, featuring pianist Andrew Russo, violinist James Ehnes and the Albany Symphony with conductor David Alan Miller (Albany); and a disc of his solo and chamber music, On Distant Shores, (Phoenix). Kernis’s conducting engagements include appearances with the Pascal Rioult Dance Company, at major chamber music festivals in Chicago and Portland, and with members of the San Francisco and Minnesota Orchestras and New York Philharmonic. He is the Workshop Director of the Nashville Symphony Composer Lab and, for 11 years, served as New Music Adviser to the Minnesota Orchestra, with which he co-founded and directed its Composer Institute for 15 years. Kernis teaches composition at Yale School of Music, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Classical Music Hall of Fame. Leta Miller’s book-length portrait of Kernis and his work was published in 2014 by University of Illinois Press as part of its American Composer series.