Corvus Mythicus was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the installation of Large Crow I, the elegantly imposing bronze sculpture by Dutch artist Arie Van Selm. As this was an outdoor event, the DSO wanted a work for a small ensemble, and we settled on a quartet of winds (piccolo, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon) plus claves. I was surprised and delighted when Dongmin Kim asked me to consider making a version for strings: Corvus Mythicus was such a “windy” piece that I never imagined a string version. It was an interesting challenge to rethink the piece in this new guise.
To honor Arie Van Selm’s fantastic sculpture, I mined the various appearances of crows and ravens (they are distinct species within the common genus “corvus”) in the mythologies of cultures worldwide. Since the croaky “songs” of these majestic animals are humble at best, I decided to focus my musical evocations of them on these various mythic manifestations. No Messiaenic imitations of bird songs here!
The Hindu Bhusunda was a sage who took the form of a crow and lived through many epochs, perched on a magical tree on Mount Meru. The music that opens Corvus Mythicus evokes his patient gaze, and this music returns throughout the piece to observe the pieceʼs successive affects. Quicker music follows Bhusundaʼs, recalling the “trickster” nature of crows noted by indigenous peoples of the American Pacific Northwest. Their skittish music is interrupted by the claves, the sole percussion instrument in Corvus Mythicus. The simple but wonderfully expressive clicking of the claves echoes the tapping of Poeʼs eponymous bird in “The Raven” (the only modern corvid in my piece), a poem that has, since its appearance in 1845, assumed the aura and ubiquity of an American myth.
Poeʼs raven ceasing to tap, Corvus Mythicus proceeds across the Atlantic to Viking northern Europe, home to the Norse god Odin and his trusted raven companions Huginn (“thought”) and Muninn (“memory”). Their music comprises two affects, distinct but related: an accompaniment first heard in the lower strings, busily industrious under a more reflective, expressive melodic duet first heard in the violins (these two groups later swap roles). Poeʼs raven interrupts this music, too, and diverts Corvus Mythicus to ancient Greece, where the mildly antagonistic characters of the North are reconciled in a hymn inspired by the healer Apollo (whose bird was the crow). In this section, even Poeʼs raven is a participant in, and no longer a dissuader of, the general affect.
From this brief incidence of unity, a solo violin takes flight to conclude Corvus Mythicus with a curious, fast epilogue, engendering the raven that Noah sent scouting from his long-afloat ark: it “went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from the earth” (Gen. 8:7). I originally thought this final section would be elegiac, remembering how the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger beautifully represents the dove of peace at the end of his Third Symphony. But when I finally came to end Corvus Mythicus, this music tended instead toward nervously searching, finding no rest. Little wonder: it was early January 2021, and there was much in the world to cause apprehension, particularly in the United States. And so contemporary reality intervened in my meditations on mostly ancient myths.