The seven movements of Histories are inspired by two interconnected sources: the general musical qualities of a historical period and the title or phrase from a contemporary literary work. The musical inspiration varies from conceptual abstraction to more direct stylistic influences.

I. The Face of the Deep | Antiquity

The imagery of creation found in Genesis 1:2 perfectly anchors the historical narratives of the following eras. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” The piano’s brooding opening mimics the dark deep. The high, soft violin gestures portray the hovering spirit.

II. Mystery Play | Middle Ages

Culturally, the Middle Ages were vibrant and colorful, not “dark” as the often-applied term (some might say misnomer) might imply. Mystery Plays were theatrical productions organized by local communities. The plays often dealt with the significant events of the Christian calendar (e.g., the Creation, the Crucifixion, the End Times, etc.). The piano employs a false drone or fauxbourdon (i.e., parallel first-inversion triads), a technique strongly associated with the Burgundian School of composers at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. The violin swirls above the piano with unbroken arpeggios, projecting the vibrant color and drama of the players on stage.

III. Harmony of the Worlds | Renaissance

Johannes Kepler, one of the great Renaissance astronomers, established several scientific concepts in his five-volume tome Harmonices mundi (Harmony of the Worlds). Kepler explored various topics, including congruence in geometrical forms, the first systematic treatment of tessellations, and his third law of planetary motion. The imagery of abstract geometry and the vastness of space inspired me to employ the violin as a still, chant-like voice intoning a contemplative air. The piano softly plays juxtaposed triadic harmonies, creating a dark, night-sky background for the violin.

IV. The Pleasant Artifice | Baroque

The Baroque utilizes ornate detail, clock-like rhythm, and imitative textures. I’ve tried to capture some of these qualities and strike a light, humorous tone. Don Quixote, the epic novel by Miguel de Cervantes, offers perfect inspiration, both for the humorous subject matter and the delightfully Baroque title, which comes from the heading for chapter 30: “The pleasant artifice practiced to extricate our enamored knight from the extremely rigorous penance he had imposed upon himself.” The artifice pleasantly spun by Dorotea (essentially in the style of a cheap romance novel) is intended to deceive and distract Quixote from his ridiculous behavior. Everyone but Quixote and Sancho are in on the deception—silliness ensues.

V. Micromégas | Classical

Voltaire’s influence on literature, particularly the development of historiography, was substantial. He wrote in almost every literary form, including science fiction. One such work, Micromégas, literally means “small-large” and refers to the main character, a giant (16.24 km tall) from a planet orbiting the star Sirius. He meets a “dwarf” (only 1.95 km tall) on Saturn. They discuss philosophy then travel the universe together, eventually arriving at earth. They pity the tiny humans and point out the meaningless strife and violence of humanity. They leave a book that will explain everything to humans in philosophical terms. When the humans open the volume, the pages are blank. Simple, soft, and scalar gestures in both parts represent the small. The clean and crisp material mimics the neoclassical style, a modern take on 18th-century classical sensibilities. As the energy increases, the thematic material becomes more intense, pounding in the bass like the footsteps of a giant; this represents the large. The movement ends ambiguously, a reference to the thought-provoking ending of Voltaire’s story.

VI. The Hymn and the Secret | Romantic

The sentiment of a devotional song juxtaposed with a hidden mystery struck me as quintessentially Romantic, an era fascinated with nature, fantasy, and subjective human emotion. The hymn is represented by an elegant violin melody and softly pulsating piano harmonies. The secret is like a resonant echo, the plucked violin imitating the bell-like sonorities of the piano. The title comes from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and refers to an emotional and heartrending encounter between Alyosha and his imprisoned older brother, Mitya, who is accused of killing their father. In a wild and breathless speech to his younger brother, Mitya envisions “underground (i.e., imprisoned) men” will sing a hymn “from the bowels of the earth” to God, “with Whom is joy.” The secret is his plan to flee to America after his inevitable conviction at trial, despite his claim of innocence.

VII. Figure and Ground | Modern

Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, is a fascinating book on the intersection between mathematics, artificial intelligence, and music. In the chapter titled Figure and Ground, he outlines the distinction between a drawn figure (i.e., the positive space of a human form, object, or letter) and the complementary shape of the ground (i.e., the negative space around the figures). His analogies span tessellations by M. C. Escher and the contrapuntal music of J. S. Bach. My musical interpretation utilizes energetic and relentless figures charging through the violin and piano. The interplay between the two creates secondary layers of listening, the musical ground. The modernist era is fragmented and eclectic; composers write in numerous styles influenced by all periods of musical history. This “modernist” movement is no exception, and like the six preceding movements, takes substantial influence from the tonal traditions and formal narratives of the past.

Score Sample




15 minutes




The Face of the Deep | Antiquity
Mystery Play | Middle Ages
Harmony of the Worlds | Renaissance
The Pleasant Artifice | Baroque
Micromégas | Classical
The Hymn and the Secret | Romantic
Figure and Ground | Modern


Felicity James (Associate Concertmaster of the Cincinnati Orchestra)


March 31, 2023
College of the Ozarks
Point Lookout, MO
Felicity James (vln.), Clara Christian (pno.)


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