In 1985, while I was living in the Washington, D.C., area and teaching at the University of Virginia, celebrated organist and composer Emma Lou Diemer approached me about writing a work for solo organ. I, a young composer just out of Juilliard’s doctoral program, delightfully accepted the commission from such a prominent figure and set about deciding how I wanted the piece to take shape.
Quite serendipitously, one day during the ensuing weeks I visited nearby Oatlands, outside of Leesburg, Virginia. Once a thriving wheat plantation and later the country estate of an affluent Washington couple, William and Edith Corcoran Eustis, the historic house and gardens are now a National Trust Historic Site and Landmark. I remember allowing myself the luxury on that weekday of wandering among the magnolia trees, boxwoods, groves of oaks, rose garden, herb garden and reflecting pool in almost total solitude – the perfect setting in which to let one’s mind wander, allowing the muse to descend.
Inspired by the visual and aural palette, I began to envision a scenario of the gardens and its denizens at different times of the year. In the weeks that followed, I translated my ruminations into four movements which celebrate the gardens over the changing seasons: The first movement, Prelude to a Vernal Reunion, brings to mind the riotous return of myriad birds of varying species to the gardens each spring. Summerhouse Idyll, the movement which follows, has a “lazier” feel to it, perhaps symbolizing refuge from the blistering summer heat. The third movement, Only the Sparrows Remain, is a rather stark, stern commentary on the bleak discomfort that winter brings to creatures of the outdoors. Twilight Tryst, the final movement, is without seasonal context; rather, it is evocative of a pair of beings conversing under a canopy of starlight.
Since this was my maiden voyage in writing for organ, and because Ms. Diemer and I lived on opposite coasts, I sought an organist in my area to confer with and to work through the movements to ensure that my intentions would be notated accurately. Rob Lehman, then at the National Cathedral, agreed to work with me, using various instruments at the Cathedral to aid not only in selecting registrations to produce the desired timbres, but ones that would work with basic instruments, as well as with more sophisticated ones. I sent each movement upon its completion to Emma Lou, who provided feedback and further suggestions. Once all movements were complete she sent me a tape recording of them and we discussed final adjustments.
On November 2, 1986, Emma Lou Diemer gave Oatlands Sketches its premiere on a solo concert on the magnificent organ at National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C. She subsequently recorded the work for the Contemporary Record Society (LP#8842) and has graciously played it many times over the years. E.C. Schirmer Publishing added the work to their catalog (No. 4420) in 2010.
Early in 2012 I received an email from another organist of international renown; Gail Archer contacted me, saying that she planned to perform Oatlands Sketches on April 27 at Rutgers Presbyterian Church, as part of American Idyll, a five-concert series touring the churches and synagogues of New York City – a series to celebrate the distinctive voice of American organ music. What an honor to be included in the series, to hear the work live again, and what a privilege to get to know this performer who so unassumingly and sensitively performs works of the greatest complexity (for those unfamiliar with her work, I would suggest obtaining the CD, A Mystic in the Making – Messiaen: L’Ascension/Les Corps Glorieux).
To date Oatlands Sketches remains my only work for solo organ – a situation that I look forward to remedying.
Clare Shore, the second woman to earn the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Composition from The Juilliard
School, has received critical acclaim for her works, with reviewers from the New York Times, New York
Post, Boston Globe, Washington Post, and others hailing her works as “provocative” … “immensely
dramatic” … “”unpretentious” … “ingenious and evocative” … “intriguing” … “romantic to the core”. While at
Juilliard Ms. Shore studied with David Diamond, Vincent Persichetti and Roger Sessions, and subsequently
with Gunther Schuller. Since then, she has received numerous commissions, awards, and grants, including a
Composer Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.