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  • Writer's pictureJacob


Beasts of the Blackwood is a new opera in progress, composed by Jacob Zualski.

Last week I posted a broad synopsis of the new opera I'm working on, set in the Blackwood, a fantasy fairy tale forest full of mystical creatures. The plot centres on themes drawn from Shakepeare's Midsummer Night's Dream and you can read more about it here.

My current goal is to complete the first 20 minutes of the opera to inform the nuances of the rest of the story. I'm pretty close now, with only one more number needed to round off the section. It's very slow work though, so it feels right to share where I'm up to and keep the energy flowing.

About the Mock-ups

The first orchestral mock-ups are now ready to share and I hope you'll be as excited listening to them, as I am writing them. I'm scoring the piece using a mixture of MuseScore and Staffpad, which I acquired very recently.

MuseScore is a great free music notation software and I highly recommend to anyone exploring composition for the first time (I'm not sponsored to say that!).

Staffpad is not free, but very reasonably priced, and allows tablet users to notate with a stylus while the software automatically converts the marks to classic music typesetting.

The mock-ups presented here are orchestral renderings played by Staffpad using MuseSounds and the second two feature Berlin Brass (I treated myself!). This means that they sound pretty convincing, but to me the performances are a little rigid and the expression is sometimes lacking the idiomatic inflections of a real orchestra. There are also a few weird things happening where the player tries to make it an authentic performance by being just slightly of the beat, where a real player would be more intelligent than that. The balance is also a little deceptive, as the instruments are all pretty equal in their 'presence' or carrying power which leaves it sounding a little compressed. But still... we're leagues ahead of Sibelius in my student days! I have to admit I gave up on them when they switched to Avid. I couldn't learn the new interface.

The Prelude - A balletic expression of the identity of the Blackwood

The first section of the opera was originally written as a ballet, with the idea being that it would introduce the creatures and characters of the world. I think it works fairly well in that context, although I will revisit it when more music is written to make sure that it says what it needs to, and I'm sure the orchestration could be better.

Here it is... about 7 minutes of music:

No. 1 Herne! Herne! Out I say!... Loneliness bites and decays my soul

The prelude ends. A heroic burst of horns and trumpets signal a major, bright ending, but all is not as it seems in the blackwood and the resolution is a dark, C minor chord.

Diana, the queen of the forest bursts into the scene, furiously calling "Herne! Herne!". But he does not answer... he never did. She reflects on her loneliness and the suffering he has caused her by leaving. Sitting in the rain, in a clearing of the forest she is haunted by a girls voice, echoing through the forest.

Around 3:16 into the movement the woodwinds play the motif below, which is a quote of Cora's aria from later in the opera (spoilers!). And just in case you didn't see last week's post, Cora is the half mortal daughter of Herne and is hiding in a clearing of the forest.

Also of note, is that the movement features two independent harp parts - one playing triplets against the others duplets. Usually symphonic harps would double each-other for added decibels, And it may be possible that 4 or even 6 harps are necessary, but I guess that will come in the workshop phase...

Strauss lovers may notice a sneaky reference to Ariadne auf Naxos at 3:40?

No. 2 Winding through the Blackwood

The second number starts with the arrival of Katrine, the water spirit and servant of Diana. The rain has flooded the stage (well why not?) and therefore she is able to swim into the scene. Between the numbers Diana simply says "Report" and Katrine begins to describe everything she's seen on her way through the Blackwood.

Diana grows impatient - what of the girl?

A shiver runs through the clearing... something, or someone is coming...

Katrine explains that the girl is protected by a spell that can only be broken by speaking her name.

There's a few musical homages mixed in, to Holst, Wagner and more, but I'd like to take a moment to mention one moment in particular which is a quote of Cosi fan tutte. (Below). The reference is to the Act 1 finale of Mozart's well known opera in which the orchestra pulse like a racing heart and while the singers speak the words 'Tremo! Le fibre e l'anima' which translates approximately to 'I tremble in the fibre of my soul'.

Despite this being the perfect classical reference, I feel compelled to add that it's also the main theme of one of my favourite songs: Frontier Psychiatrist by the Avalanches (2000). It amuses me that this earworm has crept into my work, but it also lends a fun 21st century cultural reference. Maybe equally as odd as referencing the Avalanches in this context is that I studied the song as part of my Music Degree in the Post-Modern music module. Keep scrolling for the link, but not before listening to the Beasts of the Blackwood excerpt first:

Well that's it for now...

Approximately 16 minutes of opera, and only 4 more minutes to complete my goal of writing the the first 20. If you like it let me know. If you don't, please show me your better opera!

The next update will come when I've written the next scene. Herne enters and explains that he comes only out of duty. He tells Diana that she is unwell... "we've been over this... it's all in your head"... you know, the classic caring good guy just trying to help.

Stay tuned!


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