Bel Canto: Approaching the Operatic, Unpredictable Voice of Missy Mazzoli on Violin

Space, time, and sound—these are the most significant elements in Dissolve, O My Heart that challenge the performer.

By Rebecca Fischer | From the March/April 2020 issue of Strings Magazine

My mother told me as a child that if I turned on the radio and heard music that could immediately be sung, it was probably Mozart. Mozart’s lyricism is unmistakable. His works scored for any instrument can be reimagined as an operatic scene. Playing a Mozart concerto or string quartet, one can find that the character possibilities in the musical conversation—where a musical motive suggests an operatic mother, a suitor, or a grandparent—are limitless. Every composer has a distinct rhetorical style. When I am working on solo Bach, I listen to the interaction of the sequences, the length of the phrases, how the bits of music speak to each other. Getting into the composer’s mind is my goal whenever I’m working on a piece.

Player: Rebecca Fischer is a New York–based violinist, writer, and educator. An expressive solo and collaborative performer, she played first violin in the Chiara Quartet for 18 years and forms one-half of The Afield. Fischer teaches at the Mannes School of Music and Greenwood Music Camp, where she is associate director. 
Title of Work Being Studied: Dissolve, O My Heart
Composer: Missy Mazzoli
Date Composed: 2010
Name of Edition Studied: G. Schirmer


I was first introduced to Missy Mazzoli’s music through her mesmerizing opera Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt (2012). The size of the sound she creates is captivating, the flow of the music constantly churning yet never predictable in its direction. I was also struck by the plentiful use of electric guitar in the opera, and how a piece of contemporary classical music is enhanced by the plaintive and unconstrained power of this instrument.

In 2018 Mazzoli was the guest composer-in-residence at Greenwood Music Camp, where I teach in the summers. Young musicians played her string quartet Death Valley Junction, and in working with them I was again entranced by the changeable direction of Mazzoli’s music and the rock ’n’ roll vibe she commands from four string players. 


When programming a recital at Columbia University in 2019, I decided to include Mazzoli’s piece for solo violin, Dissolve, O My Heart, on an evening featuring music by American women. Written in 2010, this work was commissioned by Jennifer Koh for her Bach and Beyond project. Tangentially inspired by the Chaconne from Bach’s D minor Partita, Dissolve quotes the opening D minor chord of Bach’s work, which Mazzoli describes as anchoring “the entire piece even as it threatens to spiral out of control.” I was especially curious to explore how Mazzoli, known as a prolific operatic composer, might engage the solo violin as its own kind of operatic instrument.

Space, time, and sound—these are the most significant elements in Dissolve, O My Heart that challenge the performer. The piece opens and closes with long, muted chords and the composer’s instructions, “melancholy, distant.” These timeless, intimate sections return throughout the piece, followed by long rests of silence, only to be interrupted by ferocious passages that test the upper sonic limits of a solo violin. In the piece’s climax, full of sixteenth notes and sliding double-stops, Mazzoli marks “wild, unhinged,” and I am reminded of the power of the electric guitar as I attempt to create whirling resonance on my comparatively small, acoustic wooden box.


Having spent years memorizing complex string quartets by composers like Bartók, I hoped I had developed a good bag of tricks to address memory challenges. But memorizing Mazzoli’s piece required a new set of techniques. Specifically, because the magic of the music’s flow lies in the defying of regular rhythmic patterns, it was difficult to grasp the minute details of recognizable moments. Besides learning to rely on the feeling of playing (kinesthetic memory), the way the piece sounded (aural memory), and the way it looked on the page (photographic memory), I had to test my structural memory by creating my own way of “seeing” the piece. This was a kind of latticework I put together of significant harmonic changes, the way phrase contours look and feel, color-coded sections, etc. In effect, I had to rewrite the piece inside my head with hand-holding devices to creatively stimulate my memory. In memorizing Mazzoli’s piece I intended to create the onstage experience of an incredibly intimate sound world that expands and contracts as the piece grows and changes. Like a large, breathable organ.

As performers across generations become more familiar with the composers of our time, we learn to recognize the distinctive rhetoric and cadence in our favorite music of theirs. I look forward to more musicians getting to know Missy Mazzoli’s work and her uniquely lyrical, brooding, secret, wild voice.