Recording of “The Rarer Action”

Here’s the recording for The Rarer Action, which I wrote for my teacher Augusta Read Thomas’ new composition class at the U of C. Performed by:

Julia Bentley, mezzo-soprano
Constance Volk, flutes
Austin Wulliman, violin
Alison Attar, harp
Greg Beyer, vibraphone
Amy Briggs, piano


Program Notes:

Shakespeare’s The Tempest finds Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan and a learned magician, stranded on a remote island. Twelve years prior his own brother, Antonio, had conspired with his rival Alonso, King of Naples, to depose him. When Prospero divines that Antonio and others are on a ship passing close to the island, he conjures a tempest that wrecks the ship, bringing those who have wronged him ashore. Prospero then uses his powers and those of his servant, the spirit Ariel, to torment Antonio, Alonso and the others. But Prospero cannot sustain his quest for vengeance indefinitely. In this scene from the play’s last act, Ariel reports to Prospero on the suffering of his enemies, saying that “if [he] now beheld them, [his] affections would become tender…Mine would, sir, were I human.” Prospero responds:

“Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
  Yet with nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
  Do I take part. The rarer action is
  In virtue than in vengeance.”

Believing them penitent, Prospero prepares to cast a a powerful spell to restore his enemies, end their punishment and, most importantly, exorcize his own demons. The Rarer Action traces the fantastic invocations of Prospero’s final spell and his (arguably) tragic resignation from magic. It concludes with a representation of Prospero’s enemies immobilized in the circle he had traced on the stage. The ending – the distant glow of a major triad in the piano and feeble, flickering harp harmonics – invokes the ambiguous tone of the play’s end, best summarized by Prospero’s final monologue:

“And my ending is despair,
 Unless I be relieved by prayer, 
 Which pierces so that it assaults
 Mercy itself and frees all faults. 
 As you from crimes would pardon’d be, 
 Let your indulgence set me free.”


Text and Stage Directions:

Act V, Scene 1, lines 33-57:

[PROSPERO makes a circle on the stage.]

PROSPERO:   Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,

And ye that on the sands with printless foot

Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him

When he comes back; you demi-puppets that

By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,

Whereof the ewe not bites; and you, whose pastime

Is to make midnight-mushrooms, that rejoice

To hear the solemn curfew, by whose aid
(Weak masters though ye be) I have bedimmed

The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,

And twixt the green sea and the azured vault

Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder

Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak

With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory

Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up

The pine and cedar. Graves at my command

Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth

By my so potent art. But this rough magic

I here abjure, and when I have required

Some heavenly music (which even now I do)

To work mine end upon their senses that

This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And deeper than did ever plummet sound

I’ll drown my book.

[Solemn music. Here enters ARIEL before, then ALONSO with a frantic gesture, attended by Gonzalo; SEBASTIAN and ANTONIO in like manner attended by ADRIAN and FRANCISCO. They all enter the circle which PROSPERO had made, and there stand charmed…]

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