On the River (Shirley, Nathan)

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Publisher. Info. Marsyas Music, 2001.
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General Information

Work Title On the River
Alternative. Title
Composer Shirley, Nathan
I-Catalogue NumberI-Cat. No. INS 20
Movements/SectionsMov'ts/Sec's 1 piece
Year/Date of CompositionY/D of Comp. 2001
First Publication. 2001
Average DurationAvg. Duration 5 minutes
Composer Time PeriodComp. Period Modern
Piece Style Modern
Instrumentation piano

Misc. Comments

On the River was written at age 20, inspired by a Guy de Maupassant short story.

The story tells of a man rowing a large boat up a river one evening after having visited a friend who lives downstream. He stops to take a break, throwing a chained anchor overboard. An unsettling feeling quickly sets in, but when the man tries to pull the anchor back up, he finds it firmly caught on something at the bottom. A thick fog sets in. Unable to free the anchor the man realizes he will have to spend the night on the wide river. The story describes his experience that night, which alternates between amazing beauty and an inexplicable terror as any strange sound or movement of the boat excites intense fear. As the night’s darkness slowly subsides, a fisherman approaches through the fog. Even with his help the anchor holds fast. A second fisherman arrives and with all three pulling, “... gradually the anchor yielded. It rose, but slowly, slowly, loaded down by a considerable weight. At length we perceived a black mass and we drew it on board. It was the corpse of an old woman with a big stone round her neck.”

After a brief introduction with a low note foreshadowing what lies at the river’s bottom, the music mimics the gentle lapping of water, the rocking of the boat, and in general the calm yet disturbing feeling of being stuck on this foggy river. This watery music recurs throughout the piece, but is sometimes interrupted by a splash or something drifting by which suddenly bumps into the boat. Fear comes and goes and a strangely beautiful scene emerges as the fog subsides, the river glistening in the moonlight. As the body is pulled into the boat, the music swells to a terrifying conclusion.