For Want of a Nail

For Want of a Nail (2017)
I. For want of a nail
II. Hit the nail on the head
III. Bind the wound and grease the nail
IV. Like trying to nail a drop of water to the wall
V. Dead as a doornail
VI. I’d rather be a hammer


Alexander Potiomkin (clarinet), Ilan Morgenstern (bass trombone) & Andreea Mut (piano)

Commissioned by bass trombonist Ilan Morgenstern, For Want of a Nail consists of six short connected movements, each of which reflects on a different quote or phrase concerning the word “nail”. An anagram of Ilan’s name suggested the subject, for which I selected six phrases:

Benjamin Franklin’s maxim in the 1757 Poor Richard’s Almanac is the source of the quote “For want of a nail” – “for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost; etc…” – which infers that a little neglect may breed mischief. The movement begins with a clarinet presentation of a short minor-mode melody that I created by setting the first phrase of Franklin’s maxim “for want of a nail the shoe was lost”. The trombone and piano follow canonically, only to quickly devolve into “mischief”…

The origin of the ancient phrase “Hit the nail on the head” is unknown, but currently it speaks to “getting to the precise point” or the “heart of the matter”. To symbolize this, the ensemble presents driving and aggressive syncopated figures.

The direction “Bind the wound and grease the nail” was given when a rusty nail was the cause of a wound. A salve is said to cure wounds by sympathy and is applied not to the wound, but to the instrument that gave the wound. This was explained by the seventeenth century courtier, diplomat and philosopher Sir Kenelm Digby, who said, “as the sword is treated the wound inflicted by it feels. Thus, if the instrument is kept wet, the wound will feel cool; if held to the fire, it will feel hot”. Another perspective is that if grease must be used to satisfy the ignorant, it can do no harm on the rusty nail, but it would certainly be harmful on the wound itself. To represent this, the melodic material from the first movement is expanded into a longer tune that is presented in the clarinet and trombone. Despite occurring at the very same tempo throughout the movement, the tune is perceived as being more settled in each presentation as a result of a gradually less rhythmically active piano accompaniment and an ever increasing push towards the major mode.

In a remark referring to former Attorney General John N. Mitchell’s testimony during the 1974 Watergate hearings, representative George E. Danielson said that trying to obtain information from Mr. Mitchell was “Like trying to nail a drop of water to the wall”. In this movement, the piano represents the water, with the clarinet and trombone seeking to “nail it to the wall”.

A doornail – the plate or knob on which the knocker or hammer strikes – is knocked on the head several times a day. The assumption that the doornail must not have any life left in it originated the phrase “Dead as a doornail”. In this extremely brief movement the trombone pulls the plug on the work’s life support.

Paul Simon sings “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail” in the song “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” from Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 album “Bridge over Troubled Water”. Considering the role of a nail, I think most people would say, “I’d rather be a hammer”. A triumphant and major mode presentation of the work’s material evokes the sentiment of this phrase and brings the work to a definitive end.

For Want of a Nail was premiered at a Texas Music Festival concert on June 20, 2017 in Houston, TX by Alexander Potiomkin (clarinet), Ilan Morgenstern (bass trombone) and Andreea Mut (piano).

PURCHASE: For Want of a Nail – score & parts (PDF via E-mail)

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PURCHASE: For Want of a Nail – score & parts (Printed via US-mail)

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