Sometime in the early 1990’s, following several works for orchestra, I felt the need to write something more intimate – a chamber composition. A commission from the ensemble Contrasts provided an impetus for writing this composition.
I was living alone in London, Ontario at the time. I felt, quite frankly, depressed having to spend time away from my family. I felt that my patience was tested as I had to exist in a town that still possessed ingredients of racism, something I was confronted with so many times in my life and I detested with a passion. I felt I was not living my life – I was enduring my existence and surviving the odds. I felt I was in a self-imposed exile, somewhere away from civilization, perhaps on another planet…
But then I thought about my father and his World War II experiences in a prison camp. Mine was a good living, I thought!
I thought of Shostakovich working as a fireman in Leningrad under attack during World War II. I remembered a picture of him fighting the flames! I did not have it all that bad, I thought again! Still, I had these nightmares about London, Ontario being surrounded by an invisible wall within which the people of foreign past were sighted and singled out for mental torture and torment. The ever-present thought of my little daughter being kept away from all of this, however, allowed me to keep my equilibrium and still to write my music effectively.
I found some letters written by my mother to my daughter. I remembered when my mother told me about the wish she had when my father was in a camp during the war, a wish to know where he was so that she could send him letters. I remembered when she talked about loneliness and hunger – her own, my brothers’, and that of my father. I imagined how lonely Shostakovich must have been during his days in Leningrad at war. I was regretful to have joined the chorus of those who were somewhat disrespectful of his music in my youth.
Now, I had to apologize through my music, I thought – somehow, and I thought that this composition would be the right vehicle for it. To pay homage to my father, my mother, and to Shostakovich, I resolved to write this composition as a multi movement work which would make use of the letters that were in my possession, or the “letters” that never were. A shadow of Shostakovich was to be cast periodically over the sombre music, which calls for much virtuosity on the part of all four performers.
The piece is in seven movements. It is, however, flexibly structured so that it may be performed also as a three-movement trio for voice, clarinet, and piano (movements 3, 4 and 6), or as a four-movement trio for violin, clarinet, and piano (movements 1, 2, 5, and 7).
The Letters is both intimate in mood and rhapsodic in style. The work is based on a central melodic and thematic motive bounded by a minor third, and on the resultant octatonic scale pattern that recurs periodically.
As a footnote, I would like to share a thought that is almost paradoxical in the context of this note. My father died on the day of the premiere performance of this composition, and I learned about his illness and his painful death upon returning home to Ottawa a few days later. This happened on the eve of my planned visit to my family in Poland. It was my intension to take this composition with me and to play it for him while there. We lived our lives thousands of miles apart for over thirty years at that point. My father never got a chance to hear this work.