Famous from an early age as a child prodigy, Philippa Duke Schuyler (1931-1967) had written numerous compositions and toured on five continents by the time she was twenty-three. As an adult, Schuyler traveled as much as possible, spending little time in the United States. She struggled with her biracial identity, writing in 1961: “I’m half-colored – so I’m not accepted anywhere. I’m always destined to be an outsider, never, never part of anything.”
Schuyler traveled extensively throughout Africa, often studying the local music traditions; aspects of African music appear in her later piano works, potentially including Seven Pillars of Wisdom. During her later trips to Africa, Schuyler covered conflict and war crimes in the Congo, as well as the lives of Catholic missionaries there.
In 1966, Schuyler traveled to Vietnam, at first to perform for dignitaries at the National Conservatory of Music. Soon after, she became interested in the war and decided to write a book about the conflict. She was able to access areas of the country that were unreachable to the average American journalist, as she could convincingly disguise herself as Vietnamese and spoke the local languages. In May 1967, she died in a helicopter crash while helping evacuate students from Bien Hoa High School to Da Nang.
Written in 1964-65, Seven Pillars of Wisdom was performed by Schuyler during her lifetime, but the manuscript pages have remained scattered amongst archive boxes since her early death. In those pages, Schuyler combines a standard musical score with performance instructions that describe the material to play. In order to create a performance score, the manuscript was reassembled and transcribed, transforming the written instructions into standard notation. Schuyler at times performed the movements in alternate and abbreviated orders; the original written score order was used for this recording.
A highly programmatic work, Seven Pillars of Wisdom was inspired by T. E. Lawrence’s similarly-titled memoir. Over thirty musical themes recur throughout the piece, many of which are named for characters, places, and ideas from Lawrence’s memoir. The ways in which these themes are introduced, combined, and modified loosely reflect the plot of Lawrence’s story.
In listening to such a lengthy composition, imagining the events of the story can help the music come to life. To aid in this, Schuyler included introductory quotations from Lawrence’s book, which she often read aloud in performance. These quotations are included here for your perusal. In the prologue, important characters, locations, and ideas are introduced to familiarize the audience with the basic conflict of the story. Part I: Decay of the Ottoman Empire then describes the stagnation and decline of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which provides the opportunity for the Arab Revolt. One of the only movements to include an explanatory subtitle, Part II: Fire and Reason depicts the first meeting between Lawrence and Emir Feisal. Specifically, this movement is intended to evoke Feisal’s personality, which Lawrence felt made him the ideal ally in creating the alliances necessary for the revolt. Part III: Blood likely depicts the events involved in taking the city of Aqaba, which was essential to the success of the revolt. Its opening theme, which recurs throughout the movement, spells the city’s name. In Part IV: The Evil of My Tale, the plot is less obvious; instead, this movement generates an ominous mood and introduces themes that reference concepts like djinn, ifrit, and angels reaping souls. Part V: The Agonies, The Terrors, and The Mistakes is subtitled “The Torture at Deraa”; this movement depicts a possibly embellished or even fictitious event from Lawrence’s book, in which the author is beaten and sexually assaulted by Turkish soldiers in Deraa. In the middle of the movement, a theme titled “the beating of Lawrence” repeats ninety times, interwoven with themes related to the Ottoman Empire; this leads to a somber conclusion, to be played “with a feeling of utter humiliation”.
Part VI: Fortune Favored the Bold Player connects less specifically to the plot; it seems to depict the war turning in the favor of the Arab Revolt, rather than a single battle or event. The final movement, Part VII: The Final Stroke – Red Victory, then portrays their victory at Damascus. Rather than concluding there, Schuyler adds an epilogue to show the events occurring after the end of Lawrence’s book. In its opening section, the mutual disillusion of those involved in the Arab Revolt grows, as negotiations with Britain and France reveal the betrayal of the promises made to the Arab fighters. A short segment depicting Lawrence’s death follows, leading directly into a finale titled “The Final Liberty of the Afro-Asian Peoples”. Beginning and ending with chains of bright major triads, this final section seems to portray the revolt’s goal of an independent Arab nation; it ends with a shocking dissonance, perhaps reflecting the collapse of that dream.
© Sarah Masterson