And one more thing...

There might be some personal nonsense in here, too...


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

My smart, talented friends inspire, entertain, and destroy me...


Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.

This post is pure catharsis; you have been warned...

I'm thankful for more than my share of disparate, interesting friends.  I've inherited more than I've earned, and many are better cataloged as acquaintances, but I'll take it — right-wing, left-wing, a number of faiths and un-faiths, most flavors of orientation and gender identity, spanning the adult age spectrum and of varying height.  (I could do with greater racial diversity, and hope that will happen as I transition into a more arts-based lifestyle.)  The professional and avocational skills represented are equally wide-ranging — linguistics, biotech, glass blowing and manufacturing, classics, health care and homeopathy, all sorts of engineering, every area of theater craft, the gamut of I.T., marketing, law, fine art, library science, dance, theology, creative writing, brewing, etc.  And to my mixed delight, music.
 Why "mixed"?  Ah.  That's where Mr. Vidal and I intersect.  More on that in a bit.  First, let me introduce a handful of these fine folk.

On the "classical" side, there's Melissa Dunphy, very much an acquaintance.  Please enjoy her site, read of her unusual background, and check out her music, acting, and other goings-on.  I met her a couple years ago after cajoling her into lunch to talk shop — she's almost twenty years my junior, yet I sought her as mentor when I first considered Usher.  She's very talented, yes, but also has more experience and training, not to mention national and international recognition.  Ironically, she earned her undergrad degree at the same music school I attended, and even worked with a few of the same professors, but has certainly mined that to greater effect.  Her wife-and-husband pop duo Up Your Cherry is no slacker, either.  She's a triple threat now, and will soon add theatre management to her CV.

On the "pop" side, there's Hot Breakfast! and The Joe Trainor Trio, who continue to rack up fans, followers, and f-awards.
 A couple years ago, JT3 created a video for their original, Keeping Up the Pace.  I know about a quarter of the people in it.  (I was asked to be in the background, but I'm camera-shy.)  It wasn't hard for them to find goombahs to assist — they're active around the region, put on big to-dos at local stages, and work quite a bit with Wilmington's City Theater Company (including an original musical).  So a lot of connections and coampadres from the music and theater scenes.  They've worked hard and earned every one.  It's always great seeing them live — lotsa that "energy" the kids keep talking about.
 What HB! lack in trio-ness they make up for in duo-titude.  No lip-service I write will do justice to their slick, sick shtick.  As much comedy as music, as much honesty as hilarity, as much dye as scalp — treat yourself to a live show.  They're also very involved in the local arts scene, and sowed what they're reaping now.  Generous to other artists, wholly professional...  It doesn't get much classier than Hot Breakfast!

I'm very happy for everyone here, doing what they love, loving what they do, building reputations and legacies.  But it makes me feel kinda lousy, too, to Mr. Vidal's point.
 It's humbling seeing Ms. Dunphy's music mentioned on TV or listed on a program in Toronto or Australia.  JT3 and Hot Breakfast! earn their applause and artistic relationships, and I look on feeling left out and left behind.  It's not envy per se, nor sour grapes.  Rather, they remind me of my many unattained aspirations, the accomplishments I talked up but never actually pursued as a hot-headed, binge-drinking, skirt-chasing, twenty-something would-be composer/song-writer/artist/writer/√úbermensch.  Every success of theirs reflects an inaction of mine, a failure by default.  I lacked the nerve and fortitude, prioritized the wrong things, and forewent opportunities that didn't provide immediate gratification, recognition, or success.  In a nutshell, I pretty much wasted those "best years of my life".
 I'll also confess to some bruised hubris.  I was pegged early on as a bright talent, and nurtured as such.  Part of me still believes that "that could be me up there".  There's no evidence to support that theory.  Of course, there's no evidence against it, either.  There's no evidence of anything at all.
 Now in my late forties, I'm struggling to start down a path overgrown with the neglect of a quarter century.  It's not just daunting, it's confusing, frustrating, scary, and gets me pretty steamed at myself.  Going it alone is even harder; I'm out of touch with social media and contemporary music trends and technology, I don't have contacts to draw from or lean on, or the musical street cred to leverage.  I may be smart and classically trained, but so is every recent composition graduate.  I'm an amateur late to the gate, looking to a subsequent generation for inspiration and guidance.  It's virtually emasculating.
 But I lacked something besides courage, will, and foresight, something at the true heart of the rest — psychological and emotional balance and maturity.

Clinical depression sucks.  Many who haven't dealt with depression directly imagine it as "the blues", an amalgam of sadness and self-pity, with touches of laziness and attention-seeking; a temporary state that a person can shake off if they really want to, or bootstrap out of if they just put their mind to it.  You know — buck up, "man up", grow up.
 I wish it were that easy.  It's not.  Depression is more complex and insidious than that.
 It undermines rationality and alters perceptions and perspectives.  It reduces your ability to enjoy even the things you "know" you love.  It leaves you emotionally raw and weary.  It convinces you that some things are pointless, more trouble than they're worth, or outright impossible to achieve, and backs that up by sapping your physical energy, motivation, and willpower.  Depression isn't just being sad or troubled — it's a prolonged place of gloom and watchwords like exhaustion, guilt, and despair.  It's toting half a hundredweight of Chippenham bricks, always pulling you down, making everything more difficult, including — maybe even especially — fighting back.  And it's no more easily shaken or cured than are grief or a broken bone.
 Almost everyone will suffer a bout of depression in their lifetime, typically following an emotionally traumatic experience.  For most it will subside and things return to normal.  For others it's chronic, and in many of those cases, like mine, genetic and inherited.
 Growing up is difficult for everyone, but an unchecked mood disorder running in the family doesn't help.  Being raised around and with depression substantially shapes one's outlook, attitudes, self-esteem, social agenda, and coping skills.  For a creative personality it offers a number of special obstacles, like pushing your output toward the monochromatic, limiting productive critical evaluation, and eroding faith that your art is worthwhile.
 Something else runs in our family: anger management problems.  The bad news is that this can be more immediately impactful than depression in most pragmatic respects — it destroys and prevents relationships, halts creative work, and drives some incredibly counter-productive decision-making.  The good news is that ours is as much emotional as chemical, which gives me two ways to tackle it.
 I began meaningful therapy at 39, and anti-depressants at 40, eventually settling on Lexapro.  That was awesome for a couple years, until I built up a tolerance.  I would have switched to another SSRI, but I was tired of the side-effects.  I've been off meds for a few years now, but thankfully the therapy kicked in to help me understand myself and manage my moods better without chemical assistance.

Not that I'm "cured".  It's a daily struggle.  The depression itself isn't going anywhere, and sometimes it wins.  It's got an itchy trigger finger and its boundaries are tested regularly, by everyday problems and events, but also by things that "should" feel good — seeing folks I know making great music, trying to craft fiction, or, problematically, working on Usher.  Progress is slow and halting, and I'm reminded often of past failures to launch.  The old modes of thought creep in, about how it's not good enough or no good at all, that I'll probably never finish, no one will be interested if I do so I might as well work on something else, etc.  About half the time spent on Usher is internal point-counterpoint as I fend off the monster from the depths.  That's not very efficient.  And there are days on end when I set Usher aside because "I just can't handle that right now".

Far and away, the biggest hurdle for this project is me — trying to keep up the motivation, maintain focus, set aside unhealthy habits, defeat that despairing voice.  One way I'm doing that is in trying to see my talented friends and acquaintances as concrete real-world examples of what can be accomplished, instead of reflections of what hasn't.  Knowing that they're supportive and in my corner helps.
 But getting some kick-ass work done on Usher would help even more.  Nothing beats rock.

Huh.  Creativity, depression, anger, ego — you'd think that'd be a recipe for great art!



Tuesday, March 24, 2015

American Classical Music at the time of Poe = Polar Bear in a Snowstorm


No nation as young as America can be expected to become immediately a power in the arts.


The tall order I've placed for myself is a work of contemporary music with a side of B-movie film score, and a dressing of instruments and "classical" musical references of which Poe might have been familiar, had he been an aficionado (all signs say he wasn't).  And I've been hoping to draw from a more American flavor in this regard.  To that end I've been researching American serious music of the early 19th Century, something I didn't hear much about in school.
 Poe published The Fall of the House of Usher in 1839.  In musical Europe, the late 1830s is the time of Chopin and Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Schumann, Donizetti and Cherubini; the beginnings of Verdi and Wagner; the ends of Rossini and Hummel.  Russia finds the origins of its European-inspired orchestral greatness in Glinka.  Brazil boasts Gomes and da Silva.  And in America we have ... er, uhm...
 For one thing we have Jim Crow and the growing popularity of minstrelsy.
 WTF, white people.  I mean, and literally I mean for Christ's sake, WTF.  Usher is the same year as Monsieur Dumas' sophomore publication, Le Capitaine Pamphile, but over here we preferred "black" antics by the likes of Thomas Dartmouth Rice?  Really?

(Begin rant.....NOW!

It didn't stop with the 1800's, people.  A few weeks ago I saw my nephew in an all South Jersey elementary school chorus, where the paper program proudly cited the inclusion of Dance, Boatman, Dance, and noting it correctly as a minstrel song.  I was ashamed and outraged that a racially diverse mix of kids was being taught this song with absolutely no context, no history, no apologies.  And that lack of education is a certainty; the chorus directors simply sent the music to the kids to learn and practice independently at home — there were no classes, no group rehearsals, no discussion of what a "minstrel song" really is.  In a later conversation about this, with white people, I was stunned to hear that they [the white people] thought this was okay.  You know, because it's "historical", and they grew up with it themselves.  I don't f***ing care if Copland set it, it's still a sh*tty minstrel song and has no place in the casual and uninformed repertoire of 6th graders.
 If you too are outraged at the glossing over of racism in the so-called "music education" of kids, please write to all the people involved in:


...who are mostly white folk themselves, and tell them how you feel.  And run, do not walk, away from South Jersey.  Hey, don't look now, but here are two more white guys singing it!  Don't they look happy?

Anyway...)

1830s America was yet a young country with a lot on our plate, but...  Alright, I don't want this to degenerate into an op-ed piece 175 years late.  To sum up, there are a number of reasons America's classical music culture hadn't come around, including: the disparate provincial heritage and independence-mindedness of the states delayed a cohesive national artistic identity; higher music education and performance options were limited in number, location, and accessibility; the remains of Puritanism still shaped the taste, use, and permissiveness of some artistic expression; and the arts in general remained a concern secondary to commercial, political, and military enterprise and expansion.
 American art would evolve in the coming decades, but in Poe's lifetime the pickings were mightily slim.  Until 1820 or so, even the most important American composers were amateurs, dilettantes, limited to choral work, and/or of distinctly European musical sensibility, like those of the First New England School.
 Worse yet, while American serious music was still finding its legs, non-American imports also lagged.  The only music specified by Poe in Usher is the incorrectly attributed Last Waltz of von Weber; Weber died in 1826, thirteen years before the story was published.  New Orleans boasted the first opera performed in America in 1796, but such were rare.  In fact, PBS claims that the first fully-staged opera was in New York City in 1826 — Rossini's The Barber of Seville.  The fact that opera was such a novelty says quite a bit about the sophistication and state of music appreciation in the young U.S., even among the wealthy and educated classes.  It's no wonder there's so little to go on for Usher.
 I did come across one bright spot in Anthony Philip Heinrich, the foremost American composer of his day (though born and raised in Belgium, his entire musical career was here), and perhaps the first to include Native American themes in his work.  I gather that being self-taught contributed to what is apparently a distinctively non-traditional approach to harmony and scoring.  I've not heard his music, but I'll be making a point of finding it.  To the point about a dearth of European imports, Heinrich is also credited with conducting the mere 2nd performance of ANY Beethoven symphony in the United States, in 1817: the First Symphony, which had been published in Europe in 1801.  Imagine a 19th Century classical music world where the Beethoven heard is 7 symphonies and two musical styles behind the times!

So, I seem to have come up almost empty-handed.  It's unlikely that Poe — somewhat itinerant, usually poor, always busy and troubled — paid much attention to the "serious" music of the day.  Any he may have enjoyed seems similar enough to European classical music of his childhood that I could and probably will be looking toward composers of the 1820s for instrumentation and scoring inspiration.

Bring on the basset horn and ophicleide!



Friday, March 20, 2015

Writing for orchestra — in your head?  My a**!  Talk to the hand, Legrand!


I don't write at the piano.  I write in silence at the table.  With an instrument you only have ten fingers, but in your imagination you have infinity.  I hear the music in the silence.  For examinations at the Conservatory, we were in a room without a piano, so we had to compose in the silence.  You have to hear what you write, like reading a book.  I think synthesizers and all of those machines are for people who can't hear the silence!


Well, Michel, I suppose that's fine if you're hanging out under some umbrellas next to windmills in the summer of '42.  Or if you're writing the theme from Arthur (it took four people to craft that sequence-heavy tripe, including three I usually think of rather highly.  I guess it was the best that they could do).

Apparently that Stockhausen character just couldn't hear the silence.

No, really, I get it.  I write the same way.  Or used to, at any rate.

For ensembles of traditional instruments and performance techniques, and limited counterpoint, I'm just fine writing on the bus.  But for what I intend in Usher, the bus ... is going to be a problem.
 I'm blessed with a decent ear.  If asked to reproduce the orchestration of a given piece, and provided a good recording, I have a fair chance of approximating it within one standard deviation.  For most music, anyway.  Don't get me wrong, there are instruments and effects that fool me, but I hope I wouldn't be begrudged for mistaking A, B♭, and C soprano clarinets playing in their middle registers.  If so, see the title of this post for further instructions.  But before you ask, no, I probably could not transcribe Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto.
 In fact, bets are off on much contemporary music.  Composers continue to push the limits of performer technique and the instruments themselves to create timbres no right-thinking person should ever need to experience.  At long last we're getting more non-Western instruments (and idioms) with our daily bread.  And some folks create wholly new acoustic or electronic sounds from "non-musical" origins.  A day may come when these rich new timbres are as familiar as flute or cello, when standards of notation have advanced to incorporate this wealth of sound and resources fully and readily — but it is not this day.

In many difficult ways I remain a Luddite, or more accurately a Neo-Luddite.  I've successfully dodged owning a cell phone, just got my first laptop (and only to assist in my day job), I shovel my own snow, and prefer car windows that crank down.  In college I was worse, and dismissed not only electronic music as "not real music", but the use of computers in composing and sequencing it.  Yes, you heard me right.  Computers were for games, movies, and aliens, and all three when possible.
 Then I grew up, and got both that particular stick and my head out of my arse.
 Also, Al Gore created the Internet.  You may have heard of it.  It was kind of a big deal for a while.
 I got my first personal computer back in 2000, and for reasons unknown it came loaded with Cakewalk's Music Creator Pro.  And holy mother of cows, was that FUN.  The first three things I sequenced were Vince Guaraldi's Linus and Lucy (I included the white noise from the recording), the famous Cantina music from Star Wars, and Bernard Herrmann's main title/overture from one of my childhood favorites, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
 Since then I've written almost exclusively at the computer.  Out-of-box MIDI sounds are limited and lame, but in 2008 I got a nice upgrade with the Garritan Personal Orchestra (and their jazz and marching band sets).  I still hadn't learned to master their full potential before that old computer finally gave up its ghost in 2012.  Doing the math, that means I haven't written much in 2-3 years.
 To Mr. Legrand's point, writing in a MIDI sequencer did make me lazy.  The digital approximations of real sounds weren't perfect, but I simply adjusted them in my head, which was easier with a sampled sound than with the same note on piano, or the page.  Why imagine the low notes of the oboe contrasting the harmonics of the violin when they lie at your fingertips?
 I probably can't afford to build an incredible home studio capable of generating mass-media-quality music.  (Not that much of what we get these days is of particularly good sound quality.  The title music to Game of Thrones demonstrates how far our standards have fallen — an excellent opinion piece on it can be found here.  Hell, maybe I can find work in film after all.)  But fooling the ear isn't my priority.  I miss being able to synthesize what was going on in my head, creating sound to enter my ears from the outside, and occasionally sharing that sound with others.  Tell me, hive mind, can you recommend something affordable for the enthusiast?

Some of Usher's scoring isn't likely to be found in easy-to-load sound fonts — bowed crotales, bowed vibraphone, singing bowls, and I really don't even know what else yet.  Much of it will remain in my brain until the musicians are gathered and the results put to the test.  The internet and in particular Youtube serve me well in this case, as you can see from the links.  They're not playing what I've written, but with real examples I can more readily incorporate their timbres into the soundscape in my head.  It's only kinda cheating.  Which is great, because I don't know anyone who owns a musical saw.

This brings me almost full circle.  Despite awakening to the value of eletronic sound production, I feel Usher is best served with a diverse but wholly acoustic ensemble.  And though I've come to enjoy composing at a QWERTY keyboard instead of one with 88 keys, or with pencil and paper on the buses, the sequencer is probably not where Usher will be realized.  It seems my mind may be more open, but my tastes and artistic vision remain rooted in personal performance and natural sounds; computers can offer support, but not solutions.

And thus the writing — in silence, at the table.




Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Small Lessons from a Master Class


Last night I attended a master class presented by Opera Philadelphia and featuring Dawn Upshaw.  It reminded me of how much I've lost by stepping away from music for a quarter century — expertise and confidence in my craft, "what might have been" and all that, yes — but also being connected to living, working artists, to new music, trends, and ideas, and to a community that shares my atrophied passions.
 The sold-out crowd was completely engaged.  This wouldn't be surprising at a concert, nor for an appearance by Ms. Upshaw, but the fact that the audience were intent on the discussion and lessons, that they "got it", and appreciated the nuanced results — well, it made me feel all funny inside.
 Though billed as an educational program for the three composers in residence, the focus seemed more on vocalist considerations and choices in interpreting and presenting the text, using the music as a guide to the composer's intent, but also in going beyond that to the character/mood/message itself.  Ms. Upshaw wasn't shy about admitting that she sometimes "breaks the rules", in that she may not follow the music with utmost precision if she feels that doing so prohibits a fuller expression of what the work is really trying to accomplish (that's my own phraseology there; I hope I'm not doing Ms. Upshaw a disservice with it.)  My favorite quote was on singing a particular series of quarter notes: "Even though the quarters are equal, they aren't equal."
 I don't know that the composers had as much to take away as the vocalists, but I was rewarded with a few insights (such as the use of diction/consonants and pauses as means of expression, not just the vowels and dynamics, etc.), ideas (for instance, having the vocalist deliberately stop and then restart a vibrato mid-note — the effect was startling and rather moving in context), and even a couple caveats (like writing carefully for phrases that bridge or leap the passagios.)

As for the music...

First up was the junior resident, David T. Little, who's working on an opera based on the last day(s) of JFK.  I'm sad to say I wasn't a fan of the aria prepared, Jackie's song to a sleeping Jack.  After looking at Mr. Little's bio, I understand why, as he strives to blend pop and classical sensibilities and influences.  This happens not to be my cup of tea, or at least not in the way he goes about it.  But with commissions from the Kronos Quartet, the PRISM Quartet, and Opera America to his credit, it's obvious that my taste can get stuffed.
 Putting the music itself aside, I had another concern that came out of the on-stage discussion between Mr. Little, Ms. Upshaw, and the vocalist, Jazimina MacNeil.  The aria is a love song, Jackie's re-commitment to her marriage after numerous difficulties, and ends with Jackie happier than she's been in some time.  This is intended to be especially poignant because the aria takes place just hours before JFK's assassination (I won't link to the real Zapruder film; Google it if interested).  But the poignancy depends solely on the audience's foreknowledge of that event.  Granted, it's common knowledge for most opera-going Americans, and for many older non-Americans.  But it restricts the full impact of her aria to those in the know, and to those seeing the opera a second time.  Decades and continents removed, this will be lost on most listeners.
 As a potential audience member, of any work, I rather resent being in a position where I could be denied a full experience solely for lack of knowledge of things outside the story I've been presented to that point.  Yes, a first-time viewer can reflect on the tragic irony afterward over coffee, and there's some merit to that.  But IMHO, the sobering depth of this particular moment would be best experienced as it happens, every time around, including or perhaps especially the first.  Moments like those are, to me, a reason to re-experience an opera rather than merely listening to it on the radio; but having to re-experience the opera to obtain the moment is less inviting.  Sadly, there was no forewarning of the assassination.  Unless the opera toys with historic details, I don't believe they can rightly foreshadow it enough to put the audience where they need to be when Jackie sings.  I certainly can't blame Mr. Little or the librettist (Royce Vavrek) for that.  But I don't have to like it, either.
 This concern goes very much to the heart of my work on Usher, where, because the work is early American fiction, I can and would blame the composer for presumption of audience awareness.  The story is among the most well-known of Poe's output, so I think it a fair bet that some who'd be interested in seeing such a work are already fans of the source material.  But I can't count on that, and don't feel I should.  With successive generations and cultures, fewer and fewer people read Poe, know this particular story in any detail, or even watch the movies inspiring my efforts, so it's an even fairer bet that seeing my Usher would be an introduction to the tale for many.  By leaning on audience familiarity to help deliver the story, I'd be doing a disservice to those new to the material, and I'd miss opportunities to be a "real storyteller," to be the architect of the audience's emotional response, to introduce, foreshadow, and reveal events through the music alone.  Ya feel me?

Moving on...

The current senior composer in residence, Missy Mazzoli, is working on an opera based on the film Breaking the Waves, by Lars von Trier, the movie that introduced much of the world to Emily Watson (whose performance I found so compelling and convincing that it was almost too stressful to watch).  Ms. Mazzoli's compositional choices were intriguing, even counter-intuitive in places, but smart and never dull.  I'm already looking forward to the 2016 premiere — imagine, an opera based on a film!

I was especially taken by the music of Andrew Norman — a fine example of what I mean by missing out on working artists and new music.  In fact, Ms. Upshaw commented that she had just assigned his very first piece for voice — Lullaby — to one of her students, which I take as an amazing compliment.  A finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, awarded commissions by major orchestras/ensembles, composer in residence at Opera Philadelphia... and I'd never heard of the man nor his work until that night.  And for every Andrew Norman there must be dozens of others also worth following.  Or, in my case, discovering fresh.  I look forward to that process, even as I lament the need for catching up.

Finally, I learned that Lauren Eberwein is my new(est) secret girlfriend.  (But shh!  Don't tell my other secret girlfriends!  Act casual!)  All of 21 tender years, and already her voice is arresting and her stage manner genuine, warm, confident, polished, and engaging.  As I listened to her performance of Norman's Lullaby, she unwittingly convinced me that my next proposed chamber opera in the American Madness triptych, which will be very nearly a one-woman show (hint! hint!), will and should be for mezzo.  And specifically her, if she's available and the material worth her consideration.  Attention readers: follow Ms. Eberwein's career — it's poised to be a remarkable one.  Wait, isn't Dawn Upshaw also a mezzo?...



Thursday, March 12, 2015

Writing a libretto is ... hard


I don't know what I'm doing.

Yet.

I'm a budding fiction writer, admittedly with a lot to learn, but I've got a grasp of what's required.  An opera libretto on the other hand, and a short one at that, imposes a very different set of expectations and demands.  Being a poet would be useful.  Not being a poet...
 Full stop.
 I'm putting no time into a formal composition process until a first draft of the libretto is well underway.  Roderick Usher is really the whole story, and I need to get inside his head if I want the music to fully realize his character.  I also want to get in Poe's head, and dig into the "mood" music he would have had in mind.  Research and work are needed on both counts.  But if I wait until the libretto is finished, and every word and nuance set in everlasting stone, I'll never get this puppy off the ground.
 I'll start composing when Scene 2 is nearly ready, and Scene 3 is being outlined.  In Scene 2 we meet Usher and hear his own take on his illness and that of his sister; Scene 3 is a thorough exploration of his psyche.  For a while, all we hear is the narrator's limited viewpoint.  By the time we're closing in on Scene 3, Usher should be pretty well understood by the audience, and the music should be part of the reason.

In the meantime, I've drafted Roderick Usher's letter to his friend, to be sung with the opening credits and function as an overture of sorts.  Nearly every phrase and sentence has been lifted from Poe's personal correspondence, most of which I found here.  The narrator portrays the letter as lengthy, full of personal detail, and laden with desperation.  Most of Poe's letters are short, but a few are emotional and pleading, especially where they concern his family and money.  Excellent source material.
 The full draft is provided below.  Phrases likely to be cut are struck through, enclosed in square brackets, and not bolded — you know, for the overkill:

My Dear Sir —

[In the first place] [let me assure you that,] if I have not lately written, it is [rather] because I have been in precarious health, suffering a keen anxiety and difficulties of no ordinary kind.  I am [quite] at a loss to understand it, and have nearly succumbed to its influence and yielded to despair.

[But by the exertion of much resolution] I now most earnestly solicit your prompt and generous assistance.  The friendship you have always evinced, the near relationship which exists between us, warrant me in hoping that these words may induce you to visit [with] me a-while, that your cheerful society might bring respite.

You are my greatest and only stimulus now, to battle with this uncongenial malady.
 [I have been dreaming [[every day and night]] of [[the rapture I should feel in]] having my [[only]] friend with me here, and] it would afford me the greatest pleasure to show you every attention in my power.

I beg you, Edgar, make no reply, but hasten here.  I remain —

Very Truly Your Friend,

Roderick Usher

A long letter won't work; a shame, really, considering how much material there is to mine, and how some of the most fun phrases aren't necessary to convey the message.  But we don't need much detail or insight into the man initially; this will be explored in later scenes, while setting the mood is the overture's sole duty.
 Learning where and what to cut will factor greatly in the success or failure of the libretto.  I tend toward verbosity, a habit that doesn't serve my fiction very well, either.  A libretto is an exercise in conciseness, second perhaps only to poetry in distilling narrative, meaning, and expression to their most essential, critical elements.  That lesson could be applied to the music, as well.  And better fiction wouldn't be far behind.
 Sadly for readers, brevity is not considered a virtue for blogs.