The Heretic Pharaoh

Philip Glass disliked much of the dissonant music that was championed by the Second Viennese School and their followers in the European avant grade. He was much more attracted to the emerging minimalist style of fellow American composers like Terry Reilly and Steve Reich and he was also heavily influenced by the repetitive and hypnotic ragas he heard while visiting his friend Ravi Shankar in India in the 1960’s. From these two influences emerged the quite tonal arpeggios which were to become the signature of Glass’ music.

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Philip Glass.

Glass was not only a composer of orchestral music and to date has composed 14 operas 3 of which he has called his ‘portrait series’. These are operas about great men who have affected the course of human history. Firstly Albert Einstein in Einstein on the Beach, Mahatma Gandhi in Satyagraha and finally the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten in Akhnaten (for some reason Glass dropped the first ‘e’). Each man in turn greatly influencing the history of humanity in the areas of Science, Politics and Religion respectively.

For a modern opera Akhnaten which had its premiere in 1984 is a very accessible work and is not as starkly minimalist as some of Glass’ music. It is certainly an opera for those who may like listening to the classic repertoire and would like to dip a toe into some more modern work without being scared off by excessive percussion, atonality or dissonance. The music in much of Akhenaten is seductive and at times incredibly beautiful and lyrical. Akhnaten is musically even more accessible to those who listen to more modern popular music because it has a strong rhythmic element which tends to be absent from most of the operatic canon. If you are of the opinion that opera is long beyond its sell-by date, and there are a few who hold this opinion, then best avoid this piece altogether and stick to Nessun Dorma.

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Image of Akhenaten and Nefertiti found at Amarna in 1881.

The opera opens with the funeral of Akhnaten’s father the Pharaoh Amenhotep III and the ascension to the throne of his son who then takes Nefertiti as his queen. He then stuns one and all by announcing that he is to abolish the old religion of the ancient gods of Egypt and institute a new one where there is only one God. Aten shall be the new and only deity and Akhnaten shall be his intermediary on earth. You begin to see now why Glass found the story of Akhnaten so interesting and worthy of his musical attentions. He was the first person in documented history to establish a monotheistic religion and there is a school of thought that all monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam flow from Akhnaten’s founding idea.

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Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children with the god Aten shinging down on them, and a statue of Akhenaten.

Banishing the old priesthood from their temples he installs belief in Aten as the only true religion. He then proceeds to move the royal capital from Thebes to the new city of Akhetaten (Horizon of the Aten) which he is building from scratch further north along the River Nile. This idea of the Pharaoh turning his back on the ancient gods deeply offended the priesthood and followers of the old religion who spread discontent about the new king who by now has moved with his followers to his new capital city. There he shuts himself and his family away in his new palace to worship Aten and presumably to ruminate on his new found position as intermediary between God and mere mortals.

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Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten for English National Opera.

Well I suppose it wouldn’t be an opera if it didn’t end in tears and eventually his people rise against Akhenaten killing him and all his family, destroy his city and return to Thebes to reinstate the old traditions and gods. The opera ends with modern day tourists walking through the ancient ruins of Akhetaten as the ghosts of Akhnaten and his family wander amidst the sand and stones.

There are a number of intriguing things about this opera. Firstly the work is scored for an orchestra with no violins. The story goes that the Stuttgart State Opera where the premiere was meant to be held was being renovated so the Stuttgart State Theatre was used instead. The orchestra pit was too small so Glass just dropped the violins and rescored the music. Another intriguing point is that the narration is spoken in the language of the audience while most of the opera itself is sung in Egyptian, Akkadian (an ancient language from Mesopotamia) and Hebrew. Finally and very oddly for a modern opera the lead role is written for a countertenor, the highest of male voices. Akhnaten’s queen Nefertiti is cast as a mezzo soprano and in their duets she actually sings lower than him.

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There are a number of recordings of this work circulating and the one I have is one with most of the original Stuttgart cast conducted by Dennis Russell Davies with the Stuttgart Opera Orchestra in 1987. This is one of those rather off-kilter operas that you trip across now and again that turns out to be an absolute gem. The more I listen to it the more its beautiful music grows on me. I highly recommend listening to Akhnaten and indeed looking into the whole story of this utterly fascinating Pharaoh.

English National Opera presented a new production of Akhnaten earlier this year and LAOpera open their production run on November 10th this year.

Philip Glass’ website

Ancient Egypt Online

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Sacred Music at an Historic Site

The English Civil War was already over by the time Parliamentarian troops arrived at the walls of Drogheda on the 3rd of September 1649. A bitter and protracted conflict which only ended with the fall of an axe on the divinely anointed neck of King Charles I in January of that year. Despite the ending of the war in England many loose ends were left untied and the most problematic of these was Ireland. This in some way possibly explains what happened when Oliver Cromwell’s 48 pounders finally breached the town walls on the 11th of September. The massacre that followed needs no retelling here but in one documented incident Royalist defenders barricaded themselves in a Church which Cromwell’s troops set alight burning it to the ground and all those inside.

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St. Peter’s CoI Church, Drogheda.

We sit this evening in St. Peters Church of Ireland on the very site where these tragic events unfolded 367 years ago, anticipating a wonderful evening of choral music as part of this seasons Drogheda International Classical Music Series. The performance was preceded by an interview with this evenings conductor James Wood. Wood has so far had a long and varied career as a musician, composer and conductor which for many years centred around the New London Chamber Choir which he set up in 1981 and conducted for 26 years before moving to Germany.

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Chamber Choir Ireland.

The theme running through this evenings programme was one of veneration and prayer to the Virgin Mary with pieces from the 15th Century right up to the present day. I am obviously a big fan of choral music and one reason I was so interested in attending this concert was to hear a chamber choir singing Renaissance hymns and motets accompanied by saxophone, an instrument that was only invented in 1840. I had heard the matching of saxophone with Michael Nyman’s reworking of various baroque motifs and liked the effect so was very keen to hear this evenings concert with Chamber Choir Ireland and the Chatham Saxophone Quartet.

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Chatham Saxophone Quartet.

The opening piece by the Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (1410/25 – 1497) set the tone for the evening and I think it is fair to say the whole audience was immediately transported away from 21st century Drogheda to candle lit 15th Century churches and cloisters in the most glorious and enchanting way. A magnificently atmospheric piece, Intemerata Dei Mater (Unblemished Mother of God) is a hymn to Our Lady and like a number of pieces this evening it was sung in Latin which only added to the other wordiness and spirituality to this magical music that has travelled down through the centuries to us. This piece also gave us a first taste of how well saxophone works as an accompaniment to the choir. Although most people’s experience of saxophone is through jazz where the instrument can be quite strident and angular, this evening it was very subtle, didn’t overpower the vocals at all and lent a wonderful instrumental backdrop for the polyphony of voices to work into and around. Beautiful rolling bass harmony lines underpinned an uplifting and occasionally soaring soprano melody in this glorious piece.

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Arvo Pärt & Benjamin Britten – two giants of modern sacred choral music.

The next two composers on the programme were more contemporary. Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) and Arvo Pärt (1935 – ). The Hymn to the Virgin by Benjamin Britten, composed when he was only 16, is a setting of a 13th Century poem for voice only. A favourite of English church choirs it is rather higher in register than the previous piece with fewer grounding deeper notes. The tenors and sopranos soared along wonderfully and indeed, next to the previous piece, this work written in 1930 pointed up the timeless beauty of this sacred music.

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The New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City with a detail of the Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Virgincita is a prayer to the Virgin Mary written by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in 2012 after a visit to Mexico which was inspired by the story of the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Saint Juan Diego in 1531. The miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe which Pärt saw is supposedly painted on Saint Juan Diego’s cloak and is now on display in the New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City (The most visited Catholic shrine in the world). Pärt who converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 1970’s is renowned for his sacred and spiritual music which is heavily influenced by the choral traditions of Christianity. We stayed with Pärt for the next instrumental piece, the otherworldly and almost ‘trippy’ Fratres (Brothers) which highlighted the ensemble playing of the Chatham Saxophone Quartet to great effect.

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Johannes Ockeghem, Carlo Gesualdo & Jacob Obrecht.

Next we moved back again in time to a piece by Carlo Gesualdo (1566 – 1613), the rather colourful and somewhat disturbing Italian Renaissance composer who murdered his wife and her lover and lead a rather bizarre and often macabre and troubled life. From 2008 to 2011 James Wood undertook to complete the missing voice parts of Gesualdo’s Second Book of Sacred Music and the Ave Sanctissima Maria (Most Holy Mary) is from this work. This is again a magnificently uplifting piece of Renaissance polyphony sung in Latin with a number of soaring heavenly crescendos that succeeded in rousing one dozing attendee near me…

We then stayed with Renaissance music for the Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) of Jacob Obrecht (1457 – 1505), a Flemish composer of sacred music who was famous for his Mass settings. Obrecht’s music has great colour and beauty which caught the ear of the Papacy resulting in his music being performed in the Sistine Chapel. We then had another instrumental piece, Padouana, a slow dance from the German composer Johann Schein’s (1586 – 1630) Banchetto Musicale (Musical Banquet) which again showed the quartets mastery of highly atmospheric almost yearning ensemble playing.

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Johann Schein.

Moving to the 19th century and a setting of the Ave Maria by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896). Best known for his romantic symphonies Bruckner was also a prolific composer of sacred music and like Britten’s hymn the higher register voices dominate to create an airy, elevated and almost unworldly feel to this piece which concludes with the classic Amen ending so prevalent in later sacred music. This beautiful setting composed in 1861 was Bruckner’s first major composition after finishing his musical studies in Vienna.

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Anton Bruckner & Giya Kancheli.

The final piece was quite a spectacular from contemporary Georgian composer Giya Kancheli (1935 – ). Written in 2005 Amao Omi (Senseless War) is a strangely haunting and melancholic work which was written for choir and saxophone. The composer claims he chose the disjointed words of the text for their sound rather than their meaning. It was certainly a very spiritual and seductive piece and was a suitably climactic conclusion to the programme.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable, inspiring and even uplifting evening charged with that very organic beauty that can only be achieved by the life-giving breath of humanity playing on vocal cords and vibrating reeds. In a busy world where so many people are stressed, worried and anxious, this music is not only an inspiring aesthetic experience but a spiritual therapy. Congratulations and thanks to Chamber Choir Ireland, the Chatham Saxophone Quartet, James Woods and all involved in presenting this wonderful musical and spiritual experience.

http://www.chamberchoirireland.com

http://www.chathamsaxquartet.ie

http://www.choroi.net  (James Wood)

http://www.droghedaclassicalmusic.com

http://www.musicnetwork.ie