for clarinet, violin, cello, & piano
According to the Poetry Foundation, “C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) is widely considered the most distinguished Greek poet of the twentieth century,” yet for most of his life he was an obscure clerk at the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria, Egypt, specializing in irrigation. Many of his writings reveal his love for ancient history. In an essay, E.M. Forster admired Cavafy’s renderings of ancient Greece and called the poet’s perspective “intensely subject: scenery, cities and legends all re-emerge in terms of the mind.”
Cavafy’s poem Ithaka, the inspiration for this music, is clearly born of his fascination with ancient cultures. The central reference for the poem is of course Homer’s Odyssey, which tells the story of Odysseus’ ten-year journey home to Ithaca after the battle of Troy. The poem’s narrator tells the traveler that what really matters is not the destination, but the journey, which must be experienced and enjoyed thoroughly, with the intellect and all the senses fully engaged: this is life’s true reward.
The musical work Ithaka, scored for a chamber ensemble, begins with a bittersweet, nostalgic introduction that gives way to the recitation of the first stanza. This stanza is about the hero’s struggle and victory over creatures such as the “Laistrygonians and Cyclops, angry Poseidon” that stand between him and home. Here the violinist takes the role of hero in a wild, high-speed cadenza. Cavafy reminds us that most of life’s greatest problems are self-created, and most of life’s battles are internal.
The second stanza begins to unspool the central message of the poem: enjoy the journey; don’t expect the destination to make you happy. Soak in every drop of pleasure, experience every exotic location as a fresh adventure, and never stop learning. I set this stanza as an ancient, Mediterranean inspired dance. From a slow and sensual beginning, it builds gradually to an ecstatic frenzy.
I set the final stanza as a song of remembrance for a life fully lived—by one who has seized every opportunity offered and met every challenge with an open heart and a courageous spirit. Recognizing the wealth of experiences life has given us, and emerging unbowed from its struggles, we will reach our final destination knowing that we have lived each moment to the utmost.