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Guest Blog: Charles Anthony Silvestri on 'Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine'

May 3, 2008 at 9:03 pm UTC

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N.B.: Charles Anthony Silvestri and I have been friends for nearly twenty years now. (We met in choir at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas). He’s brilliant, funny, a genuine Renaissance man: great musician, versed in Italian and Latin, doctorate in medieval history, painter, illuminator, poet, chef… you get the picture.

Together we have created a number of choral works, including Lux Aurumque, Sleep, Her Sacred Spirit Soars, and of course, Leonardo Dreams. I asked him to contribute to the blog and I’m hoping I’ll be able to persuade him to keep doing it.

At the bottom of this post, please find a YouTube video of me conducting Leonardo at a concert of which both Tony and I were a part. The choir is comprised of the two high school choruses in Lawrence, Kansas. (Tony’s home). The video is a little rough, but my god what an incredible choir.

You can visit Tony at his website or his myspace page, or just leave a message for him here… he’ll be checking in often, and responding to questions.

Eric

• • •

The Genesis and Creation of Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine

by Charles Anthony Silvestri

Eric asked me to contribute to his blog, and I thought an entry about how we came to create Leonardo would be an appropriate place to start. Of all our collaborations, Leonardo was by far the most organic. By that I mean the text and music were created together, concurrently, and Eric and I regularly met and ran ideas by each other. Composer affected text, and librettist affected music to create an unique work, one that has an energy and a spirit of its own evident every time it’s performed.

In the Summer of 2000 Eric approached me with an offer which at first I found difficult to accept. He had just been awarded the Raymond Brock commission from the ACDA, the youngest composer ever to have been so honored. In the midst of being so proud of my friend’s success I was a bit shocked when he asked if I would write the text for him. We had worked together on the text for Lux Aurumque a few months before, my contribution being a Latin translation of the Esch poem Eric had chosen. I was not a poet, or a lyricist; I had no formal training as a wordsmith and, frankly, I felt Eric was out of his mind in wanting to risk his golden opportunity on my abilities as an untried poet.

I must digress here, and reveal a bit of my inner life to shed some light on this hesitation. I have (and have always had) a very hard time believing in my abilities or accepting praise. Even after all the success our collaborations have had, I still feel like a bit of a charlatan and a poser, like the whole house of cards will come crashing down when folks realize that I have no talent and no business calling myself a poet. Eric won’t have any of this, and he rolls his eyes whenever I go to this place of self-deprecation. He is and has always been so positive and supportive of my creativity. I couldn’t ask for a better best-friend/brother.

So, I argued that he must have been kidding to want me to write the text for such a prestigious commission. He insisted. We began to talk about ideas, and Eric threw out a truly cool and crazy title: Leonardo da Vinci Dreams of His Flying Machine. We began to discuss what he would be dreaming about, what the soundtrack of that dream would be like. I remember it was a fun conversation, and it reminded me of the many outlandish philosophical wanderings we enjoyed years before when we first were getting to know each other.

I immediately turned to Leonardo’s notebooks to see what the master himself had to say about birds, wings, the air, flight, and flying machines. I copied down everything I could find in transcribed Italian, tweaked the translations for Eric, and presented them to him as a preliminary exercise. Here’s a sample of what I found:

Tolli n’iscambio di molla, fila di ferro sotili e temperate; le quail fila sienno di medsima grossezza e lunghezza infa le ligature e ari le molli d’equal potenzia e resistenziam se le filla in ciascun sieno di pari nmero.

As for the spring mechanism, take thin, hardened wire, if the wire sections between the joints are the same thickness and length, and if each spring has the same number of wire sections the springs thus obtained will be equally strong and resistant.

———————————————————-

Trovo, se questo strumento a vite sara ben fatto, cioè fatto di tele lina, stopata i suoi pori con amido, e svoltate con prestezza, che detta vite si fa la femmina nell’aria e montera in alto.

I believe that if this screw device is well-manufactured, that is, if it is made of linen cloth, the pores of which have been closed with starch, and if the device is promptly reversed, the screw will engage its gear when in the air and it will rise up on high.

———————————————————-

Se stai sul tetto al lato della torre, que’ del tiburio non vedano.

If you climb to the roof alongside the tower, they won’t see you from the lantern.

———————————————————-

Non ci vuol dare il vento questa palla dentro al cerchio ha esser quella che ti fara guidare lo strumento diritto o torto, come vorrai, cioè quando vorrai andare pari, fa che la palla stia nel mezzo del cerchio, e la pruova te lo insegnera.

The ball in the middle of the circle will enable you to direct the course of your machine. That is, whenever you want to fly horizontally make sure the ball is in the middle of the circle. Give it a try and you’ll see.

———————————————————-

Ognuno si potra gettare de a qualsiasi altezza senza alcun rischo.

Anyone can jump from no matter what height without any risk whatsoever.

———————————————————-

Se un uomo ha un padiglione di pannolino intasato che siadi dodici braccia per faccia e alto dodici, potra gittarsi d’orni grande altezza senza danno.

With a length of 12 yards on each side and 12 yards high, he can jump from any height whatsoever, without any injury to his body.

———————————————————-

Ricordati siccome it tuo ucello non debbe imitare altro che ‘l pipistrello, per causa che i pannicoli fanno armadura over collegatione alle armadure, cioè maestre delle ali.

Remember that your flying machine must imitate no other than the bat, because the web is what by its union gives the armor, or strength to the wings.

———————————————————-

Sichè per queste demonstrative e assegnate ragioni potrai conosciere l’uomo colle sua congiegniate e grandi ale, facciendo forza contro alla resistente aria, vincendo poterla soggiogare a levarsi sopra di lei.

From these instances, and the reasons given, a man with wings large enough and duly connected might learn to overcome the resistance of the air, and by conquering it, succeed in subjugating it and rising above it.

———————————————————-

Le penne leveranno li omini siccome gli uccielli inverso il cielo; cioè per le lettere fatte da esse penne.

Feathers will raise men, as they do birds, towards heaven; that is, by the letters which are written with quills.

———————————————————-

Molla di corno, o di ferro ligata sul’legno di salice incessato della canna. Rete. Canna. Carta. Pruova prima le foglie della cancellaria. Un pancone d’abéte ligato in sotto. Fustagno. Taffetà. Filo. Carta…

Spring of horn or of steel fastened upon wood of willow encased in reed. Net. Cane. Paper. Try first sheets from the Chancery. Board of fir lashed in below. Fustian. Taffeta. Thread. Paper…

———————————————————-

A bird is an instrument working according to mathematical law; which instrument it is within the capacity of man to reproduce with all its movements. We may therefore say that such an instrument constructed by man is lacking in nothing except the life of the bird, and this life must needs be supplied from that of man.

———————————————————-

Eric and I discussed the overall structure of the piece, and decided on a narrative about Leonardo. Eric wanted the text to be dramatic, cinematic, and all me in English; I wanted it to be more cerebral, and all Leonardo, in Italian (minimal me–see above). I worked to create a structure in English in which Leonardo’s more poetic words could be showcased. I was teaching full time then, and it took me a few days to crib all this together. Here’s what I eventually gave Eric:

Alone in his workshop once again,
Surrounded by parchments and sketches,
Master Leonardo da Vinci dreams of a flying machine…

L’uomo colle sua congiegniate e grandi ale,
facciendo forza contro alla resistente aria,
vincendo poterla,
soggiogare a levarsi sopra di lei.

(A man with wings large enough and duly connected
might learn to overcome the resistance of the air,
and by conquering it,
succeed in subjugating it and rising above it.)

As the candles burn low he paces and writes,
Releasing purchased pigeons one by one
Into the golden Tuscan sunrise…

Vedi l’alie percosse contro all’aria
fanno sostenere la pesante aquila
sulla suprema sottile aria
vicina all’elemento del fuoco.

(You will see that the beating of its wings against the air
supports a heavy eagle
in the highest and rarest atmosphere,
close to the sphere of elemental fire.)

Tormented by visions of flight and falling,
More wondrous and terrible each than the last,
Master Leonardo perfects his design for a machine
Which will carry a man to the sky…

Trovo, se questo strumento
a vite sara ben fatto,
cioè fatto di tele lina,
stopata i suoi pori con amido,
e svoltate con prestezza,
che detta vite si fa la femmina nell’aria e montera in alto.

(I believe that if this instrument
is well-manufactured,
that is, if it is made of linen cloth,
the pores of which have been closed with starch,
and if the device is promptly reversed,
the screw will engage its gear when in the air
and it will rise up on high.)

Images of wings and frame and screw, confused and disjointed,
Spring from the Master’s pen.
Only such a mind as his can sort the frenzied tumult of these books…

I had read somewhere that Leonardo purchased pigeons in the marketplace and released them, sketching their ascent as fast as he could to record the angle of their wings, etc. I loved that image and wanted to include it in the text. His frantic drawing of the pigeons led to an image of Leonardo pacing late into the night, muttering to himself, working out the details of flight in his mind before recording his thoughts in the notebook. I thought using the present tense might communicate that urgency. I worried about whether Leonardo would be in Florence or Milan at the time of this dream, and I tried to find out his life’s itinerary to be precise, and it occurred to me that this was a poem, not historiography, and I was free to compose out of my imagination details of setting and character. It was OK to view this Leonardo as an amalgam of images from books, movies, daydreams–a fabricated, impressionistic Leonardo who exists in an imaginary place and time. This revelation was immensely freeing to me, and I have stayed connected to that freedom.

As you will note, there is much in this preliminary version which survived to the final libretto, and much that was cut or altered. As I look back at this version now I can’t help but wonder what I was thinking. I clearly did not understand the idea of singability. Eric’s main comment was a practical one–this text represented about thirty minutes of music. It had to be a lot shorter. He also reacted negatively to the final quotation, one which I thought revealed that da Vinci was not really intending to fly. We had a heated discussion about whether Leonardo actually believed his designs would work, or whether he was just giving his patrons the cool bragging points they required to keep him employed. Eric wanted grander images, more drama, more cinematic narrative. That’s when we started thinking about this piece as a little movie, and hatching the idea that Leonardo was going to try to fly at the end (even if it was just in his dream). We talked about adding refrain-like elements, something Eric could latch onto for repetitive motifs. Finally I needed to increase the singability of the text, adding a more iambic, more Italian sound to the English (the Italian sounds fabulous, no matter what it says!). I went back to the drawing board, and here’s Version II:

LEONARDO DREAMS OF HIS FLYING MACHINE…

Tormented by visions of flight and falling,
More wondrous and terrible each than the last,
Master Leonardo imagines an engine
To carry a man up, up into the sky…

And as he dreams the Heavens call him, haunting…
“Leonardo. Leonardo. Vieni à volare!” (“Leonardo, come fly!”)

L’uomo colle sua congiegniate e grandi ale,
facciendo forza contro alla resistente aria,
vincendo poterla,
soggiogare a levarsi sopra di lei.

(A man with wings large enough and duly connected
might learn to overcome the resistance of the air,
and by conquering it,
succeed in subjugating it and rising above it.)

LEONARDO DREAMS OF HIS FLYING MACHINE…

As the candles burn low he paces and writes,
Releasing purchased pigeons one by one
Into the golden Tuscan sunrise…

And as he dreams the Heavens call him, taunting…
“Leonardo. Leonardo. Vieni à volare!”

Vedi l’alie percosse contro all’aria
fanno sostenere la pesante aquila
sulla suprema sottile aria
vicina all’elemento del fuoco.

(You will see that the beating of its wings against the air
supports a heavy eagle
in the highest and rarest atmosphere,
close to the sphere of elemental fire.)

Scratching quill on crumpled paper
Images of wings and frames and gears
Turning, ever turning…

Rete. Canna. Carta. (Net. Cane. Paper.)
Fustagno. Taffetà. Filo. Carta… (Fustian. Taffeta. Thread. Paper…)

And as he dreams the Heavens whisper, calling…
“Vieni, Leonardo. If you climb to the roof alongside the tower,
they won’t see you from the lantern!”

The key at last is in his grasp!

Se sto sul tetto al lato della torre,
que’ del tiburio non vedano.

(If I climb to the roof alongside the tower,
they won’t see me from the lantern.)

On the edge of the tower Leonardo stands,
To his wingéd engine, the tortured object of his fascination, strapped,
And leaps into the air!

We were getting closer to what would become the final libretto bréve. It was at this point that Eric began to compose more than just sketches and chords and motifs. I had condensed the Italian considerably, and moved closer to a narrative structure (although still quite clunky). I had improved the singable cadence of many of the English lines. My reservations were largely about the disjointed nature of the text, but Eric assured me that was OK for him. I was beginning to understand my role as lyricist, as servant to the composer, especially as Eric began to share with me more and more of his musical ideas. He asked to borrow my Monteverdi CD’s, especially the Fourth Book of Madrigals (I recommend the Consort of Musicke recording on L’Oiseau Lyre) for inspiration.

The last obstacle (and most difficult to resolve) was the final section. Both of us were wrestling with our original idea of a narrative ending with a flight, and so my problem became how to get Leonardo up onto the tower to jump. I was so attached to the idea of an actual device that he had constructed. I struggled for hours to concoct a line in which Leonardo attaches himself to the device and yet does not sound hokey, clunky or suggestive (you can imagine the puns and jabs involved with anything being “strapped on”). What I ended up with was sort of ”Silvestri dreams of Milton dreaming of Leonardo,” and it’s still hokey, clunky and suggestive. How can a choir sing a line which ends with the word “strapped,” even if it has the word “wingéd” in it too? What was I thinking?

Anyway, Eric and I juggled around with this one for a while. Over the next week or so I further condensed the text and simply eliminated the whole tower section altogether. For some reason I cannot remember, I changed the phrase “carry a man up into the sky” to “into the sun”–sun sounds better, but I really don’t remember why I changed it. The compression of lines into stanza III. and the alternating languages increase the sense of urgency, frustration, mania, desperation, obsession–whatever you want to call it–that drives Leonardo to attempt the flight, and it gears the energy up for the climax of the piece. Finally, Eric called one day asking for the key to the whole piece, the bridge between the first sections and the leap, a line having to do with the Renaissance Humanist ideal of the triumph of man over any obstacle, something lofty, grand. So I eventually came up with the line “The triumph of a human being ascending in the dreaming of a mortal man.” This line gave Eric what he wanted, and preserved for me the construct that this was all a part of Leonardo’s dream. After that we were pretty much done with the textual part of our collaboration. I got to hear musical ideas as he was composing them, and then the piece was done. Here’s the final form of the libretto, as it appears in the music:

I.
Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine…

Tormented by visions of flight and falling,
More wondrous and terrible each than the last,
Master Leonardo imagines an engine
To carry a man up into the sun…

And as he’s dreaming the heavens call him,
softly whispering their siren-song:
“Leonardo. Leonardo, vieni á volare”. (“Leonardo. Leonardo, come fly”.)

L’uomo colle sua congiegniate e grandi ale,
facciendo forza contro alla resistente aria.

(A man with wings large enough and duly connected
might learn to overcome the resistance of the air.)

II.
Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine…

As the candles burn low he paces and writes,
Releasing purchased pigeons one by one
Into the golden Tuscan sunrise…

And as he dreams, again the calling,
The very air itself gives voice:
“Leonardo. Leonardo, vieni á volare”. (“Leonardo. Leonardo, come fly”.)


Vicina all’elemento del fuoco…

(Close to the sphere of elemental fire…)

Scratching quill on crumpled paper,


Rete, canna, filo, carta.

(Net, cane, thread, paper.)

Images of wing and frame and fabric fastened tightly.

…sulla suprema sottile aria.

(…in the highest and rarest atmosphere.)

III.
Master Leonardo Da Vinci Dreams of his Flying Machine…

As the midnight watchtower tolls,
Over rooftop, street and dome,
The triumph of a human being ascending
In the dreaming of a mortal man.

Leonardo steels himself,
takes one last breath,
and leaps…

“Leonardo, Vieni á Volare! Leonardo, Sognare!” (“Leonardo, come fly! Leonardo, Dream!”)

I was able to attend the premiere at the ACDA National Convention in 2001 in San Antonio, slam-dunked by Charles Bruffy and the Kansas City Chorale. (Charles graciously allowed Eric to conduct). It was one of those mountaintop experiences. I had been on that stage once before, as a singer in the Loyola Marymount University Men’s Chorus, at a previous ACDA National. That performance was legendary, and up to that point in my life was the most thrilling moment I had experienced. Ironically, during the premiere of Leonardo I was standing backstage with Paul Salamunovich, my college director from Loyola, who was slated to receive an award that evening. It was a confluence of so many wonderful feelings and memories–certainly an evening I will never forget.