Breath of Souls

Written: 2011

Price: full set $145; score $40

Commissioned By: A consortium led by the L'Anse Creuse High School Band, Russell Hilton, director

Duration: ca. 7:45

Grade Level: 4

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Out in the harbor breaths of smoke
are rising from the water, sea-smoke
some call it or breath of souls…

The 1989 collection of poetry Poets for Life was a collaboration of seventy-six poets in response to the growing AIDS crisis. Among these, one of the most striking is the Greek-American poet Olga Broumas’ “Mercy.” The poem itself has influenced several pieces of music, including compositions such as David Gillingham’s Waking Angels – which is based on the poem’s final stanza – and Daniel Montoya Jr.’s Breath of Souls – inspired by the passage above.

From Broumas’ initial linking of the natural and supernatural in the opening stanza above, the poem goes on to poignantly explore tragedy and transcendence in human interaction. Montoya’s Breath of Souls, as a whole, is formally constructed in a way that matches this progression of abstract concepts: from rawly elemental through an intense melancholy and finally into exuberant triumph. Though the piece has no intended program, the archetypal values expressed in the poem – as Montoya notes – had a profound impact on the work’s creation:

“When reading this, I was flooded with imagery both spiritual and physical.  There is the idea of a passing on of a loved one, the mourning, the acceptance, and the ascension.  There is the idea of death, rebirth, and/or resurrection.  And then there is the reflection on the events, both major and minor, that breaths play a part in; the first breath after birth, the last breath before death, the anxious breaths before receiving good or bad news, losing one’s breath when discovering the one you love, and of course, the breath before performing a piece of music.”

There is a sort of cyclic flow to the piece, due partially to the organic building blocks that construct it – most of the motives have recurring rhythmic and melodic elements that Montoya slowly transmogrifies over an extended period of time. The result is a perpetual sense of nostalgia – the subconscious feeling that the listener has heard these things before (because, indeed, they have) while the present setting is constantly mutating.  While the winds and percussion evolve through their musical content, the solo trumpet becomes the agent of this nostalgia, frequently repeating – even insisting at – strands of what has come before.

The opening of the piece is preternaturally explosive: neither truly a fanfare nor a bold, declamatory chorale, but instead a dichotomic hybrid of the two with an aggressive cloud of harmonies from the ensemble in F minor that is punctured by a furious blaze of trumpet articulation. The aftermath of this sonic blastwave is a complete reversal – a pacified and somber melody initially stated by solo clarinet and then imitated canonically by bassoon, alto saxophone, and solo trumpet. The insistence of the opening material returns – sometimes vaguely and at others, with brazen fortitude – setting the two conflicting ideas in a tug-of-war for motivic supremacy. The dispute is settled at the work’s pivot point by the solo trumpet who, over hummingbird-like flitterings of keyboard percussion, drives the entire musical content toward an optimistic B? major. From this point, Montoya presents the earlier ideas in reverse – dispelling the earlier sensation of tragedy and loss and imbuing a feeling of heroism and hope.

Breath of Souls is Montoya’s eighth work for symphonic winds and is dedicated to Michael Martin.


Program note by Jake Wallace
Please credit Jake Wallace when reproducing or excerpting this program note

The Consortium

Brazoswood High School
, Brian Casey
Fraser High School, James R. Rodgers
Hazel Park High School, Brad Elstone
L’Anse Creuse High School, Russell Hilton
Lamphere High School, Michael D. Garvey
Marine City High School, David Uhrig
Mill Creek High School, Erik Mason
Plymouth Community Band, Carl Battishill
Richards Middle School, Lance L. Vechinski
Troy High School, Brian P. Nutting