Photo by Dan Adair
University of Southern California Professor Stephen Hartke wrote Tituli for The Hilliard Ensemble, who gave the first performance of the work in 1999 at the Klangspuren Festival in Schwaz, Austria. The same ensemble gave the American premiere in January. The forty-minute piece is scored for five male singers, a violinist, and two percussionists. There are seven movements, each a setting of an inscription — either carved in stone or scratched in metal – from pre-Imperial Italy (approximately 600 to 100 BCE). For complete program notes, click here.
Hartke was inspired to write Tituli while living in Rome on an American Academy fellowship in 1991-1992. “We would take these field trips, and I remember standing in the drizzle looking at things that were no longer there. The piece was meant to give you that sense of things in ruin.” Hartke preferred the inscriptions over literary texts because of the “sense of personal contact” they provide. The text of the “Elegium parvuli,” the fourth movement, is an epitaph for a boy named Optatus. “The family of the boy commissioned that epitaph,” Hartke emphasized. In the seventh movement, “Instrumenta,” he used an inscription scratched on a mirror. “Someone made that mirror for the love of someone else.” This contact with real people, he believes, “takes the distance out of the past.”
Hartke doubts that the Pulitzer distinction will affect whether or not Tituli will be recorded; that will be up to ECM, The Hilliard Ensemble’s label. (On the same USC concert in January, The Hilliard performed another piece that he wrote for them, called Cathedral in the thrashing rain.) He is flattered that he is one of the few West Coast composers to make it this far in the Pulitzer process, and he joked that he “doesn’t mind the company” of Corigliano and Lerdahl. “It’s a strange distinction to have ‘almost won,’” he laughed.