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Ophelia Floats | Steven Sérpa

Ophelia Floats

for soprano, clarinet, and piano (2020)



Duration: 12.5 min.

Arthur Rimbaud (adapted/translated by Steven Serpa)

The Sterling Trio:
Alissa Roca, soprano; Brian Tracey, clarinet; Jason Mulligan, piano

Program Note:

In Ophelia Floats, I set out to compose a companion to Schubert’s iconic trio Der Hirt auf dem Felsen. Schubert created a work that glories in the pastoral and springtime. His lonely shepherd, watching over his charges from the mountainside, weeps over lost love but becomes invigorated with the renewal of spring. Setting Rimbaud, my Ophelia lives in the eternal flow of water and the cold light of distant stars. She is held in stasis in a moment of serenity while the double tragedy of lost love and life ripples around her.

The music is influenced by two of my great musical loves: mélodie and salon music of late-19th century and early-20th century France and “emo” alternative music in the United States from the 1990s through the 2000s. Scales and modes from Debussy and Satie are synthesized with textures and chord progressions from bands like Dashboard Confessional, Secondhand Serenade, and The Early November. Fin-de-siècle France meets turn-of-the century America, emo-pop meets belle époque.


On the calm black water where the stars sleep
White Ophelia floats like a great lily;
Floats very slowly, lying in her long veils…
–You hear in the distant woods the sound of the hunt.

For more than a thousand years the sad Ophelia,
She passed, a white phantom, down the long black river;
For more than a thousand years her sweet madness,
It murmured its romance to the evening breeze.

The wind kisses her breasts and unfolds in a wreath
Her great veils softly cradled by the waters;
The trembling willows weep on her shoulder,
Over her wide dreaming brow the reeds bend down.

The ruffled water lilies sigh all around her;
At times she awakens, among the sleeping branches,
Some nest, from which escapes a slight rustle of wings;
–A mysterious song falling from golden stars.
O pale Ophelia! beautiful as snow!
Yes, you died child, carried off by a river!
–The falling winds in low voices
Spoke to you of bitter freedom;

It was a breath, twisting your great hair,
That bore strange rumors to your dreaming mind;
It was your heart listening to Nature’s song
In the complaints of trees and in the sighs of the night;

It was the voice of mad seas, a great noise,
That broke your child’s heart, too human and too soft;
It was a knight, so handsome and pale, a poor fool,
Who, one April morning, sat mute at your knees!

Heaven! Love! Freedom! What a dream, you poor, mad girl!
You melted to him as snow does to fire;
Your great visions strangled your words
–And fearful Infinity terrified your blue eyes!

–And the Poet says that under the stars’ rays
You come at night looking for the flowers you picked;
And that he saw on the water, lying in her long veils,
White Ophelia floating, like a great lily.


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