ARGENTO, DOMINICK (1927– ). Son of Sicilian immigrant parents,
Dominick Argento won a Pulitzer Prize in music in 1975 for his mezzosoprano song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Argento has lived near
water, and his works are inspired occasionally by the sea and frequently by
literature. His chamber opera Postcards from Morocco (1971) uses the symbol
of a ship resembling the Flying Dutchman, which carries a seeker forth on
his quest for the meaning of life. He fashioned the monodrama for male
voice A Water Bird Talk (1977) after John James Audubon* and his opera
The Aspern Papers (1988) after Henry James. His song cycle To Be Sung upon the Water: Barcarolles and Nocturnes (1974) is based on eight poems
of William Wordsworth.
For his sacred oratorio Jonah and the Whale (1974), Argento used The
Book of Jonah, II: 2–9, the fourteenth-century medieval English poem “Patience, or Jonah and the Whale,” and traditional work songs and sea chanteys of the nineteenth century. This creates intentional anachronisms, such
as when Jonah, sailing to the biblical port of Tarshish, breaks out in a traditional whaling song, “The Greenland Fishery.” Because Argento considers
the Whale, not Jonah, to be the hero of the piece, he gives the Whale the
best tune in the work (in a trombone solo).
The suspenseful opera The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe (1976) casts a phantasmagoric maelstrom of Poe’s* nightmarish life as a final voyage. In the
first scene, Poe stands at a dock in Richmond, Virginia, awaiting a ghostly
vessel commanded by Rufus Griswold; he goes aboard, where hallucinatory
scenes involve Poe’s mother and the Allans. His child-bride Virginia Clemm
sails by in a small boat, which Poe boards; another boat glides by, bearing
Poe’s mother, who is seducing Griswold. Characters from Poe’s life transform into other characters amid a full-blown gale. Virginia sings “Annabel
Lee” and dies. Appearing to Poe after death, she tells him of the otherworld,
where “gold and silver fish swim through the river of silence” (II: 9). Poe,
on a wharf in Baltimore, dies by her side in delirium, thinking that he has
boarded a vessel, though no ship departs.