I was delighted when the Australian Chamber Orchestra invited me to compose something to celebrate the centenary of Patrick White’s birth in 2012. I came to know Patrick while writing music for several of his stage plays in the 1980’s. At that time I also composed a concert aria, prosaically titled Aria (1984), using text Patrick wrote as a preliminary essay for an opera that he dearly wanted to create, but which never materialised.
My favourites among White’s novels are The Vivisector and The Tree of Man. Both sit for me near the pinnacle of English literature, but the latter kindly provides, in its short final chapter, a concise summary, not of the action of the rest of the book, but somehow of its very essence.
Old Stan Parker has died, leaving his estranged, curious and imaginative grandson wandering through the unmistakably ‘Australian’ patch of land that infused the old man’s life. Both characters represent aspects of White. The elder spent a lifetime navigating the terrible complexities arising from the simplest human interactions; the younger seeks to convert the inexpressibility of life into words.
The language of chapter 26 is stunningly evocative while using remarkably simple vocabulary. It symbolises in prose the very poem that the boy vows to write. I wanted to avoid setting the whole thing as Recitative, the operatic form that uses staggering rhythms to denote words spoken ‘naturally’. Fortunately, the text is full of lilting, natural and repetitive rhythms, which I have heightened with simple step-wise melody and accompaniment that emphasises its regularities. Although this setting contains little plain triadic harmony, I have endeavoured to reflect, in every aspect of the music, the simplicity and sincerity of the novel’s language.
It is dedicated to Danielle de Niese, and was written in memory of Patrick White (1912-1990).
Carl Vine, January 2012
The Tree of Man was commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra for the national concert tour by that ensemble with Danielle de Niese in June 2012. It was first performed by those musicians on 7th June 2012 at the Wollongong Town Hall, Wollongong, Australia.