John Wallace created his latest musical composition as “an abstract architectural rendering” of buildings in Essex County, many with ties to the Salem witch trials.
Structures, commissioned by the North Shore’s resident chamber music ensemble Music at Eden’s Edge, will be performed June 21, 22, and 26, with one movement being performed for the WGBH 99.5 All Classical Festival today, June 19.
Wallace, an assistant professor of musicology at the College of Fine Arts, first started researching the commission last fall. He composed five movements over a span of four months, around the Rebecca Nurse House in Danvers, the Nathaniel Felton, Sr., House in Peabody, the House of the Seven Gables (Turner-Ingersoll Mansion) in Salem, the Rev. John Wise House in Essex, and the First Religious Society in Newburyport.
“When I first began prep work, it was already clear to me that I didn’t want the piece to be literal,” he says. “But I wanted a common trajectory through the piece, a linear narrative.”
Wallace says the buildings and their history shaped his musical decisions. For example, the Rebecca Nurse House is an archetypical First Period post-and-beam structure with two stories, each divided into two main rooms. To echo this, he created four main sections of the movement. After Nurse, a mother of 8, was arrested on charges of witchcraft, 40 of her neighbors signed a petition attesting to her strong moral character. The numbers 8 and 40 were incorporated into the music in the first of the four main sections, which is 40 measures long and consists of 40 rhythmic entry points.
“While Nurse’s neighbors were heroic, I think it was more heroic for Nathaniel Felton to stand up alone and support John Proctor,” Wallace says. During the witch trials, Felton defended his neighbor Proctor.
For the second movement, Wallace studied the history of the Felton House. He found out that additions, since removed, had been put on the building in a “telescoping” fashion. This methodology, of building smaller and smaller additions, inspired the musical construction, says Wallace.
The central movement is influenced by the House of the Seven Gables. The section is a symmetrical seven-part rondo reflecting the contour of the well-known roofline, which is, Wallace says, “as literal as I got.” While not overtly reflective of the Hawthorne novel of the same name, the House of the Seven Gables movement evokes the book’s oppressive gloom, progressing to a corresponding lightening of mood at its conclusion.
The fourth movement is based on the Rev. John Wise House, which reflects the practical nature of post-and-beam construction. Wise was a strong advocate of democracy and “no taxation without representation,” providing a key point of inspiration for the Founding Fathers. He supported Increase Mather’s attempts to ban “spectral evidence” from use in the witch trials, and later attempted to have the convictions reversed.
“The house was originally one room, so the movement starts out compressed,” Wallace says. “Then you get to the part where you can’t stand it, and have to add on, so that’s where the musical sound space gets larger.”
The final movement draws inspiration from the First Religious Society. Its spire is a prominent landmark in the coastal town of Newburyport, visible from all directions. The church, now a Unitarian Universalist congregation, has roots stretching back to the 1630s. For this “lighter, more airy movement,” Wallace says, he imagined what it would be like to stand on the spire.
“There is some squeaking — representing the weathercock — that floats off into nothing.”
Structures will be performed Monday, June 21, at 7 p.m., at the Peabody Institute Library, 82 Main St., Peabody; Tuesday, June 22, at 2 p.m., at the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church, 323 Locust St., Danvers; and Saturday, June 26, at 8 p.m., at the North Shore Arts Association, 11 Pirates Lane, Gloucester. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for students, $55 for a family. More information is available by calling 978-270-4463 or at the Eden’s Edge Web site.