Book of Shadows
for string quartet and narrator

Instrumentation:

string quartet and narrator

Words:

I - Chang, the magician (after a traditional Chinese tale and Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Antony)

II - The sentence (after Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The pit and the pendulum’)

III - The Mirror of Wind-and-Moon (after Tsao Hsueh-Chin’s The Dream of the Red Chamber

Duration:

20'

Year of composition:

1998

Commissioned by:

the Endellion String Quartet with funding from Eastern Arts

Premiere:

University of Cambridge Faculty of Music Endellion Concert Series,

West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, 21 January 1998

Book of Shadows is a montage of two Chinese tales, Flaubertian imagery, and a fragment from a story by Edgar Allan Poe.  Motifs of magic, love and death cast shadows upon one another.

 

The first leaf of the Book of Shadows tells the story of Wu of Ch’iang Ling, a man of letters, who has offended Chang, the magician.  Convinced that Chang will seek vengeance, Wu spends the night awake reading the Book of Changes by the light of a candle.  Suddenly a warrior appears.  Wu knocks him down with the book but, as he kneels down, notices that the warrior is no more than a paper cut-out.  Wu imprisons the figure between the pages of his book.  At midnight a woman with tears in her eyes knocks at the door.  ‘I am Chang’s wife; you imprisoned him in your book.  I beg you let him go.  Should you not let him go by dawn, he will certainly die.’  In the morning, the magician is found dead in his bed.

 

‘The sentence’, a fragment from Poe’s ‘The pit and the pendulum’, is an account of the images that rush through the mind of a prisoner of the Inquisition as he hears ‘the dream-sentence of death’.

 

The cycle closes with an episode from The Dream of the Red Chamber.  Kia Yui is ill: the image of the inaccessible Madame Phoenix wastes his days, nightmares and insomnia his nights.  One day a Taoist beggar calls at the door claiming he can cure the diseases of the soul.  ‘No medicine can cure you, but I can lend you a precious object that will heal you, the mirror of Wind-and-Moon.  The mirror has two sides; you may look only on the reverse side.  Tomorrow I’ll fetch the mirror and you will be cured.’  Kia Yui looks into the reverse side and sees a grinning skull. He turns the mirror round and looks at the forbidden side.  From its depths, his beloved Phoenix calls him.  He goes through the mirror and embraces Phoenix.  Although exhausted by his pleasures he turns the mirror round again.  Still not satisfied, Kia Yui goes into the mirror again and again.  But finally, as he is about to return from the mirror, two figures approach him and put chains around him.  ‘I will follow you, but let me take the mirror with me.’  Kia Yui is found dead on a stained sheet.

S.M.