Catullan Epigrams

Catullan Epigrams

for mixed chorus a cappella (2002), 12′
text in Latin by Gaius Valerius Catullus

Performed at Indiana University by the IU Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, March 2003; at the First United Church, Bloomington, Indiana, March 2004; at Indiana University, April 2004; and by the Cambridge Madrigal Singers, two performances: Arlington and Boston, MA, May 2006 (movement II only).

Program note:

The Roman poet Catullus lived in the first century B.C.E., died at a young age, and left behind a relatively small but influential body of work. Drawing heavily on Greek models, Catullus was the first great epigrammatist in the Latin language.

Catullan Epigrams represents an attempt to revive some of the spirit of Classical Latin verse in the context of contemporary choral music. I’ve tried to capture something of Catullus’ directness and wit in this music. The piece also has the novelty of employing the poetic meter as a compositional device. Classical Latin verse, unlike its medieval counterpart (and unlike English verse), is quantitative rather than stress-accented. That is, it represents a pattern of long and short syllables and is thus not so distant from the rhythms of music. A skillful poet could use the poetic meter, just like any other poetic device, to convey feelings and images. I therefore saw the meter as an essential part of the poetry, and in composing this piece, I tried to preserve the relationship between long and short values.

The poem of the first movement is a notorious double-entendre. The music alternates stylized birdsong, featuring solo coloratura soprano, and playful homophonic declamation based on the rhythm of the poetic meter.

The second movement, a comic piece, sets a poem full of such vivid imagery that I could hardly resist indulging in extensive word-painting. The sentiment of the poem seems rather mean-spirited, but it is remarkably tame compared with some of Catullus’ other lampoons.

The final movement sets Catullus’ celebrated funeral epigram for his brother. At the words prisco quae more parentum (“which by the ancient custom of our ancestors”), the music seems to reach back in time. What emerges is a passage from an equally celebrated funeral tribute, Josquin’s Déploration de Johannes Ockeghem.


I. Passer
II. O Colonia
III. Multas per gentes