Riddle —1999

Riddle was composed for Nathan Williams, James Stern, and Audrey Andrist, was performed at Merkin Hall, and was highly reviewed by The Washington Post.

Program Note

I set out to write something that sounded distinctly American, so I chose the old folk ballad “The Riddle” (or “I Gave My Love a Cherry”) as the point of departure for the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms in the work.  The lyrics of the song suggested the contrasting emotional landscapes of the two movements, which are, for me, musical meditations on aspects of marriage and children, respectively.  I also enjoyed exploring numerous musical riddles (in the form of overlaid processes) while writing the piece. Both movements are essentially variation forms, and since the melody is simple and familiar, I hope most listeners might follow the theme’s gradual transformations.  The first movement is primarily a series of continuous variations on the melody of the folk tune.  The piano part consists solely of the notes in the folk tune melody in a widely spaced, motoric perpetual motion, which progressively cycles through different keys and modes.  The second movement is quite different in character, beginning and ending with music suggestive of a prayer or a lullaby.  The form resembles sectional variations in which the harmony, drawn from the chord changes in the folk tune, slowly shifts from a calm A mixolydian through a series of more turbulent modes to a high, quiet statement in B-flat minor, finally giving way to a serene ending in B lydian.


I.  A ring that has no end?

II.  A baby with no cryin’?


“The Riddle,” a two-movement piece written for Strata by Robert Maggio, was intriguing and created a mood that the concluding weighty and opulent set of four Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces, Op. 83, did not disturb. The material for Maggio’s trio is the American folk tune “The Riddle Song,” whose melody is fragmented and scattered through a bunch of octaves in the energetic first movement and whose harmonic implications are explored quietly and intensely in the second. It is a nicely put-together piece and a fine contribution to the chamber repertoire.

Joan Reinthaler, The Washington Post

Its two movements are thematically based on the familiar American folk song, “I gave my love a cherry.” The playful first movement seemed almost like a game of musical tag as the players joyfully tossed recognizable snippets of the base melody back and forth. It was hard to find evidence of the original tune in the somber and reflective second movement. That didn’t diminish the impact of this interesting and delightful piece in the slightest.

Lindsay Koob, The Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C)