In 2016, I began to explore the possibility that the emotionality and frequent shifts of mood in my compositions derive from my interest not only in character and personality in music, but in these aspects of the literary arts, and in narrative form in particular. My early research on theories of narrative focused particularly on the structural analysis of folk tales. I recalled how, when I was a boy growing up in Rhode Island, there was a year or two in which I was keenly interested in the folk tale collections of Ruth Manning-Sanders (illustrated by Robin Jacques). Her collection A Book of Enchantments and Curses included her telling of Vasilissa Most Lovely (known also as Vasilissa the Lovely or Vasilissa the Beautiful). One of the most iconic of Russian folktales, Vasilissa Most Lovely resembles the classic Cinderella story in that the heroine is a good and innocent girl who, mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, triumphs in the end. But while some versions of Vasilissa Most Lovely do end with a wedding to the Tsar, the marriage functions as a kind of epilogue to the main tale (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasilisa_the_Beautiful).
To me, there are several intriguing aspects to Vasilissa Most Lovely. One is that all of the main characters are female – the father is mentioned only in passing, and in fact it is his absence which initiates the action. Another is its shockingly brutal ending, a conclusion which may to some extent be satisfying but cannot be considered “happy.” A third intriguing aspect is that the evil witch is in fact Vasilissa’s helper, and that evil is punished by evil, while good is simply the messenger. Fourthly, and related to this plot point, Vasilissa does not do anything truly heroic, and she does nothing of her own accord – in most versions I have read she is not even described as brave, she is simply good (and beautiful). The source of her strength (and arguably the true protagonist) is the little doll which has been given to her by her mother – her mother’s “blessing.”
It is interesting, I think, to consider that Vasilissa’s goodness and strength are gifts from her loving parent, that this grotesque and bizarre fairy tale functions also as an allegory about how a parent’s love (or “blessing”) can cultivate in a child the resilience and integrity needed to overcome even the most daunting obstacles. This interpretation resonated with me as a parent, and it seemed to me that to derive the new work from this unusual folk tale might be appropriate, given that the Clarosa Quartet takes its name from the children of the original members. And because Vasilissa’s most important character traits in the story are her strength and resilience, I did not entitle the piece Vasilissa Most Lovely but rather Vasilissa the Invincible.
The first movement captures the essence of Vasilissa and depicts the prologue of the fairy tale, the bestowal of the doll and the mother’s death. The second movement depicts the remainder of the fairy tale, from the introduction of the stepmother and stepsisters to their eventual destruction. There are themes for all of the main characters of the story, including the eerie emergence and disappearance of the mysterious galloping horsemen, and listeners may be able to hear how events come in groups of three, as they often do in fairy tales. The work was commissioned by the Kingston Chamber Music Festival for the Clarosa Quartet, for first performance in Kingston, RI, August 2018.