First performance by Heidi von Bernewitz (viola) and Robert Nairn (bass), Esber Recital Hall, Penn State University, Pennsylvania, USA, 25 March 2008
Near the end of my opera, Rembrandt’s Wife, Sue Smith’s libretto has the eponymous artist at work on his famous painting of a slaughtered ox hanging up in an abattoir or butcher’s shop. His work on the painting is obsessive, at one level an escape from the problems of daily life. In the context of this particular painting, our Rembrandt refers to his work – the secret, driven, obsessive work of any artist, which, partly through its solitary nature, non-artists sometimes find it hard to understand – as his “ox life”. While sketching ideas for the opera in late 2007, and thinking about this crucial scene, I came up with a sequence of chords which I found myself repeating over and over at the piano, rather like the painter dabbing away at his canvass. The chords found their way into the opera, but they also form the basis for the gently obsessive music of this duo.
Chorales from a Ox Life was commissioned by the bassist Robert Nairn for him to play with violist Heidi von Bernewitz, and it is dedicated to the two of them.