for mezzo (poetry by Frank Stemper, Jr.), flute/picc., clarinet/bs.cl., violin, 'cello, piano and percussion - 12 minutes
My father died a little over ten years ago of lung cancer from the millions of cigarettes that he smoked in his lifetime. Being a heavy smoker, he was, of course, a physician, actually a psychiatrist – and a good one. For years after his death his patients continued to call my mother, concerned about her wellbeing. Some of the younger shrinks at the hospital told me that they were indebted to my dad, because of all the help and advisement that he gave them as they were starting out.
Like many World War II veterans, he was politically a very conservative young professional during the 1950s and early 60s. He had a daily routine with the nurses at the psychiatric hospital where he worked. Emerging from his office in the late afternoon, he would approach the nurses’ station in search of the afternoon newspaper while making his usual irreverent wisecrack about the current democratic president. On November 22, 1963, as he loudly vocalized his daily joke, his routine became family lore.
As he got older, however, he became politically very liberal, rooting for me when I grew my hair long and protested the Viet Nam war, supporting me when I left pre-med to study music. He also became quite eccentric: He made tapioca pudding every day for a couple of years, took albums full of photos of his dogs and of his wife laughing, and he drove his 1960 Cadillac until 1982, when it rusted and fell apart. When his seven children started producing grandchildren in the late seventies, he refused to be called “grandpa.” At his request, his grandchildren (25 in all) called him “Uncle Clarence.” One of his grandchildren, my son, described the old coot with his poem titled Clarence, which I set here – a sort of triple generation piece – for an ensemble combination that is known as Pierrot plus percussion.
Rock salt under worn
wing tips. The old man hums
a tune he doesn’t know. Dirty snow
covered walkway on a bone chilling day.
There is a crumbling red
brick building. Inside the nurses
are weeping over bright
countertops and dim headlines.
The doctor, wearing a slender
Smile, is almost in. He is aware
of his worn down face. His skin drooping
through heavy clouds of cigarette smoke.
And the ladies in white uniforms
Stifle their tears as he speaks:
No crying for old hole in the head.
Not on my watch.
Tears linger on dry pink cheeks
before staining the newspaper.
Ink runs toward the sunlight
through the words of the dead.
Dirty snow covered walkway
on a bone chilling day. Rock salt
under worn wing tips. The old man
hums a tune he doesn’t know.
Frank Stemper, Jr.