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Encyclopedia > The Desert Music

The Desert Music is a well-known piece of music by Steve Reich. Steve Reich Steve Reich (born Stephen Michael Reich, October 3, 1936) is an American composer. ...

It is a large-scale work for voices and orchestra on texts by William Carlos Williams. It is in five movements, the first fast, the second moderate, the third slow then moderate then slow, then fourth moderate, and the fifth fast. In both its tempi and arrangement of thematic material, the piece is in a characteristic arch form (ABCBA). A philharmonic orchestra An orchestra is a musical ensemble used most often in classical music. ... William Carlos Williams Dr. William Carlos Williams (sometimes known as WCW) (September 17, 1883 – March 4, 1963), was an American poet closely associated with Modernism and Imagism. ... In music, arch form is a sectional way of structuring a piece of music based on the repetition, in reverse order, of all or most musical sections such that the overall form is symmetrical, most often around a central movement. ...


CHORUS: 27 voices (3 of each- Soprano 1A, Soprano 1B, Soprano 2, Alto 1, Alto 2, Tenor 1, Tenor 2, Bass 1 and Bass 2)

ORCHESTRA: 4 Flutes (2nd, 3rd, and 4th doubling on piccolo) 4 oboes (2nd, 3rd, and 4th doubling on English horn) 4 clarintes in Bb (2nd, 3rd, and 4th doubling on Bass clarinet in Bb) 4 bassoons (4th doubling on cantrabassoon)

4 Horns in F 4 Trumpets in C (1st may substitute Piccolo Trumpet in movements II and IV) 2 Trombones Bass Trombone Tuba

2 Timpani (both doubling on roto drums) Percussion (7 players) 2 Marimbas 2 Vibraphones 2 Xylophones 2 Glockenspiels Maracas Sticks (Rattan or plastic mallet handles) 2 Bass drums (both 32 placed on stands horizontally) Medium Tam-Tam

    • Mallet percussion is in two mirrored columns directly in between the director and the second set of strings.

2 pianos with 4 players (1st and 3rd part on onw piano, 2nd and 4th on the other)

Strings (12-12-9-9-6) broken into three sections of (4-4-3-3-2) seated by their section with the first set of 16 players stage right, next 16 center stage, and last stage left.

MUSICAL ARCH FORM: I- Fast Tempo (quarter = 192 in 4/4 time) II- Moderate Tempo IIIA- Slow Tempo IIIB- Moderate Tempo IIIC- Slow Tempo IV- Moderate Tempo V- Fast Tempo

Sections I and V have the same harmonic structure, sections II and IV have both the same harmonic structure and same words. Sections IIIA and IIIC have the same words.

LYRICS: I-fast: 7 minutes and 30 second
"Begin, my friend
for you cannot,
you may be sure,
take your song,
which drives all things out of mind,
with you to the other world." (from Theocritus: Idyl I- A version from the Greek)

II- Moderate: 7 minutes
"Well, shall we
think or listen? Is there a sound addressed
not wholly to the ear?
We half close
our eyes. We do not
hear it through our eyes.
It is not
a flute note either, it is the relation
of a flute note
to a drum. I am wide
awake. The mind
is listening." (from The Orchestra)

IIIA- Slow: 6 minutes
"Say to them:
Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant
to know how to relize his wishes. Now that he can realize
them, he must either change or perish." (from The Orchestra)

IIIB- Moderate: 6 minutes
"It is a principle of music
to repeat the theme. Repeat
and repeat again,
as the pace mounts. The
theme is difficult
but no more difficult
than the facts to be
resolved." (from The Orchestra)

IIIC- Slow: 6 minutes
Same text as section IIIA

IV- Moderate: 3 minute 30 seconds
Same text as section II

V- Fast: 11 minutes
"Inseparable from the fire
its light
takes precedence over it.
who most shall advance the light-
call it what you may!"
(from Asphodel, The Greeny Flower)

All poems are by William Carlos Williams collected poetry book: Pictures from Breughel and Other Poems copyright in 1954, 1955, and 1962 from the New Directions Publishing Corp.

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Thus the overall harmonic movement of The Desert Music is from the possibility of a D dorian minor center to more and more ambiguity, until in the third movement, where the text would seem to suggest it, there is no clear harmonic center at all.
The pulse which begins and ends The Desert Music and recurs throughout it is significant both musically and as a kind of wordless response to and commentary on the text itself.
Musically it presents the harmonic cycles of the movements as a kind of pulsing chorale.
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