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Harrison: “Seven Devilish Pieces”

The alternation of aggressive instrumental figures and more lyrical
utterances gives an appealingly capricious character to Harrison’s
Seven Devilish Pieces. The composer recalls: “Its title, as well as its
inspiration, stem from a comic situation that occurred during my
residency in Paris. During a conversation with several colleagues, a
casual remark referring to ‘this devilish piece’ was interpreted as
‘seven devilish pieces.’ This misunderstanding sparked my imagination,
and led me to investigate the devil’s portrayal in various disciplines,
which, in turn, triggered a multitude of musical ideas.”

Indeed, this piece’s seven movements present an extraordinary variety
of textures, melodic materials, and expressive gestures. The juxtaposition
of impetuous activity with infernal calm occurs at multiple
levels. In general, even-numbered movements display a greater
melodic breadth and harmonic intensity, while odd-numbered movements
are characterized by high energy and unusual performance
effects. Harrison comments: “Although the structure is highly sectionalized,
I have tried to create an organic form in which musical
ideas return in different guises and with different functions.” The
fact that there is no pause between movements three/four and
six/seven enhances the impression of creative continuity from the
tense tranquility of the second movement (“Put Those Devils to
Rest”) to the virtual witches’ sabbath of the final movement (“Hot
Times”). The latter movement bears the Shakespearean epigraph:
“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”

In addition to “otherworldly” performance techniques required from
the instrumentalists (at times reminiscent of Paganini’s supposedly
diabolic virtuosity), listeners may also notice the prominence of
melodic lines built on the interval of the tritone (diminished fifth),
once considered representative of “the devil in music.” “The biggest
challenge while writing this work,” Harrison comments, “was to
create contrasts while remaining devilish, i.e. extreme, excessive,
energetic, reckless and, perhaps, mischievous. At no time was it my
intention to create a devilishly difficult work, but rather, as one conductor
so aptly stated, to create a work through which everyone
could have a ‘devilishly good time.’”

Seven Devilish Pieces was commissioned by the Fromm Music
Foundation for the ensemble Parnassus, who premiered the work
under Anthony Korf in 1997.

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