“... the traditional Buddhist text the Heart Sutra, with the Providence Singers. This piece ends in a glorious burst of musical joy”
Anthony Tommasini
The New York Times
5 November 2015
(CD: Harrison La Koro Sutro)


Eric Whitacre (b. 1970)

Eric Whitacre

Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine  (2001)

“As a composer, I know that all sorts of sounds I hear are making their way into my brain and soul and later sneak into my music.”

“I try to find sounds that exactly match the emotional journey that I want to take the listener on through the music.”

— Eric Whitacre

The composer Eric Whitacre and the poet Charles Anthony Silvestri are frequent, prolific collaborators. They worked closely together on a 2001 commission, an unusual process that produced Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine. Whitacre has described the project like this:

We started with a simple concept: What would it sound like if Leonardo da Vinci were dreaming? And more specifically, what kind of music would fill the mind of such a genius? The drama would tell the story of Leonardo being tormented by the calling of the air, tortured to such a degree that his only recourse was to solve the riddle and figure out how to fly.

We approached the piece as if we were writing an opera brève. Silvestri (Tony to his friends) would supply me with draft after draft of revised “libretti,” and I in turn would show him the musical fragments I had written. Tony would then begin to mold the texts into beautiful phrases and gestures as if he were a Renaissance poet, and I constantly refined my music to match the ancient, elegant style of his words. I think in the end we achieved a fascinating balance, an exotic hybrid of old and new.

Whitaker wrote that Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine would be the second composition in a cycle of “elemental” works building on Cloudburst (1992), which the Singers performed almost exactly a year ago. Where Cloudburst conjured a sudden rainstorm with thunder sheets and more than a hundred rapidly snapping fingers, Leonardo offers a sudden rush of air as da Vinci takes one last breath and leaps ... Tenors and basses supply 11 measures of airtime, beginning with “whhhh” and feathering into “shhhh,” beneath rapid-fire la-la-la syllables that establish a credible sense of velocity for a contraption built of rete, canna, filo, carta (net, cane, thread, and paper).

Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine was commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association, making Whitacre the youngest composer to receive the ACDA’s Raymond C. Brock commission. It received its premiere at the 2001 ACDA national convention in San Antonio, Texas, with the composer conducting.

Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine
Text by Charles Anthony Silvestri, with Italian fragments from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine…
Tormented by visions of flight and falling,
More wondrous and terrible each than the last,
Master Leonardo imagines an engine
To carry a man up into the sun…


And as he’s dreaming the heavens call him,
softly whispering their siren-song:
“Leonardo. Leonardo, vieni á volare.”

[“Leonardo. Leonardo, come fly.”]

L’uomo colle sua congiegniate e grandi ale,
facciendo forza contro alla resistente aria.

[A man with wings large enough and duly connected might learn to overcome the resistance of the air.]

Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine…


As the candles burn low he paces and writes,
Releasing purchased pigeons one by one
Into the golden Tuscan sunrise …


And as he dreams, again the calling,
The very air itself gives voice:
“Leonardo. Leonardo, vieni á volare.”

[“Leonardo. Leonardo, come fly.”]

Vicina all’elemento del fuoco …

[Close to the sphere of elemental fire …]

Scratching quill on crumpled paper,


Rete, canna, filo, carta.

[Net, cane, thread, paper.]

Images of wing and frame and fabric fastened tightly.


…sulla suprema sottile aria.

[…in the highest and rarest atmosphere.]

Master Leonardo Da Vinci Dreams of his Flying Machine…
As the midnight watchtower tolls,
Over rooftop, street and dome,
The triumph of a human being ascending
In the dreaming of a mortal man.


Leonardo steels himself,
takes one last breath,
and leaps …


“Leonardo, Vieni á Volare! Leonardo, Sognare!”

[“Leonardo, come fly! Leonardo, Dream!”]