Our faculty: mastering Rzewski’s De Profundis

By Michelle Keong

Watch Dr. Terence Dawson’s performance of De Profundis, March 4, 2015
at Barnett Hall, UBC School of Music.

Pianists do not often play and speak at the same time—let alone whistle, sing, play a Harpo horn, and use their body and the piano as percussion instruments. Terence Dawson decided to take on the challenge and perform Frederic Rzewski’s De Profundis as a career milestone marker.

Oscar Wilde Photo: Napoleon Sarony

Oscar Wilde
Photo: Napoleon Sarony

Rzewski’s De Profundis has been described as a melodramatic oratorio, in which the pianist recites text consisting of portions of Oscar Wilde’s letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, which was written during the author’s imprisonment in Reading Gaol “I feel overwhelming empathy when I try to simply get my head around the idea that this creative artist was denied books, denied writing material, placed in solitary confinement and sentenced to hard labour for two years,” says Dawson, chair of the keyboard division. “That in and of itself would bring an ordinary man to their knees.”

Eight sections of rhythmically notated recitation are preceded by eight preludes, with the pianist directed to perform simultaneously as speaker, singer, whistler and percussionist. At approximately 30 minutes in length, this performance is no small feat.

“It took patience. And it took a lot of experimentation to figure out what I needed to do to absorb the physicality of playing as well as the emotional demands of the piece,” says Dawson, who read Wilde’s work (De Profundis) in its entirety, as well as biographies and critical works in order to explore more fully what the prolific author went through during those desolate years in prison.

After six weeks of practicing up to seven hours a day, Dawson felt comfortable with the idea of scheduling a date for his first performance of De Profundis.



Dr. Terence Dawson Photo: Joshua McVeity

Dr. Terence Dawson
Photo: Joshua McVeity

“I don’t think I’ve ever put as many hours into a piece to just to figure out how to actually physically play it. You would think that after 50 years, you would know how to practice,” says Dawson. “Learning De Profundis was a different experience because of the writing itself. Rzewski demands it all; variety and drama magnified by the intensity generated by Wilde’s words. The fusion of the music and speech takes the pianist and audience to a new plane.”

Dawson first performed De Profundis at UBC in March, 2015 after returning from a year-long sabbatical. Now he is taking this work on tour, with invitations from universities and colleges from coast to coast including Mount Allison University, and closer to home at Douglas College, Capilano University, and the Universities of Victoria, Calgary and Lethbridge. An encore performance at UBC on October 29thwas preceded by a panel discussion with faculty colleagues focusing on the words of Wilde, the music of Rzewski and the fusion of the two.

“I’ve also found that despite spending countless hours immersed in De Profundis, it still feels fresh every time I play it because the words are so heartfelt,” says Dawson, who was inspired to tackle the work after hearing a performance by New York-based pianist Lisa Moore in 2000. “I think of it as a piece that demonstrates the resilience and the power of the human spirit.”