by Frank A. Wallace
for guitar solo
Preview: a sample PDF of White Albatross
Duration: 6:30 minutes; 4 pages
Difficulty level: Advanced
Written: September 29, 2013
Commissioned by: Fabian Hinsche, Dusseldorf, Germany
The creation of this piece was inspired by the happy coincidence of my reading of Moby Dick and a visit from Fabian Hinsche and his wife Annika – together the spectacular Mare Duo from Dusseldorf, Germany. Fabian is a guitarist and aspiring writer who draws musical inspiration from literature. I had already found several passages in Moby Dick that suggested song to me, the language is so rich in sound. As Fabian and I discussed what kind of piece would round out the CD we were working on together, I immediately thought of Melville.
The title came quickly, though I rarely name pieces before they are complete. Fabian had commissioned a piece for Annika only a year ago which has the name Night Owl. Two other solo works came shortly after and retained the usage of raptors as names: Blue Heron, for mandolin solo, and Black Falcon, also for guitar. The imagery of the albatross is strong in Moby Dick, and thus the name was critical to the conception. All of the “raptor” series are in binary form: a slow and free introduction, moving into a virtuoso display of scales, arpeggios and exciting rhythms. In this case, the first section is representational of the be-calming of a ship in icy waters, full of strange sounds and fear of the unknown, moving to the entrance of the great bird and the excitement of release which leads to a spiritual rise to heaven.
While my main inspiration came from Melville – I site the first use of the albatross as savior and symbol of enlightenment: “…Previously known as a goney bird, the albatross was given its name and subsequent symbolism by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” [The engraving on this page is from an early edition.] In the seven-part piece, a troubled ship in Antarctica is one day stalked by an albatross which then brings the sailors good fortune:
“At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.
It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!”
And from Moby Dick, chapter 42, The Whiteness of the Whale, by Herman Melville:
“Bethink thee of the albatross, whence come those clouds of spiritual wonderment and pale dread, in which that white phantom sails in all imaginations? Not Coleridge first threw that spell; but God’s great, unflattering laureate, Nature.* *I remember the first albatross I ever saw. It was during a prolonged gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas. From my forenoon watch below, I ascended to the overclouded deck; and there, dashed upon the main hatches, I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime. At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. Wondrous flutterings and throbbings shook it. Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king’s ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God. As Abraham before the angels, I bowed myself; the white thing was so white, its wings so wide, and in those for ever exiled waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and of towns. Long I gazed at that prodigy of plumage. I cannot tell, can only hint, the things that darted through me then. But at last I awoke; and turning, asked a sailor what bird was this. A goney, he replied. Goney! never had heard that name before; is it conceivable that this glorious thing is utterly unknown to men ashore! never! But some time after, I learned that goney was some seaman’s name for albatross. So that by no possibility could Coleridge’s wild Rhyme have had aught to do with those mystical impressions which were mine, when I saw that bird upon our deck. For neither had I then read the Rhyme, nor knew the bird to be an albatross. Yet, in saying this, I do but indirectly burnish a little brighter the noble merit of the poem and the poet. I assert, then, that in the wondrous bodily whiteness of the bird chiefly lurks the secret of the spell; a truth the more evinced in this, that by a solecism of terms there are birds called grey albatrosses; and these I have frequently seen, but never with such emotions as when I beheld the Antarctic fowl. But how had the mystic thing been caught? Whisper it not, and I will tell; with a treacherous hook and line, as the fowl floated on the sea. At last the Captain made a postman of it; tying a lettered, leathern tally round its neck, with the ship’s time and place; and then letting it escape. But I doubt not, that leathern tally, meant for man, was taken off in Heaven, when the white fowl flew to join the wing-folding, the invoking, and adoring cherubim!