Impermanence and Enlightenment: Music of Lieberson and Brahms
By Thomas May
In an essay recounting his journey as a composer, Peter Lieberson applied the perspective he had learned from Tibetan Buddhism to the creative process. “Bits of sound that have no inherent meaning whatsoever” begin to suggest new forms: “Somehow, notes have been endowed with such passion that they magnetize further notes until, magically, a world is born that makes us cry and laugh. A Buddhist would say that is the true nature of our entire world: empty, devoid of any inherent existence, and yet luminous, vivid with the play of apparent phenomena.”
Lieberson’s music flashes with vivid luminosity, mirroring his lifelong quest to balance technical mastery with expression, intellect with heart: a balance whose necessity, it might be added, must itself be recognized through experience rather than intellectual effort. In Lieberson’s case, this involved the discovery of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism in the mid- 1970s, when he turned 30. He grew up in New York in a household dominated by music, where Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein regularly appeared as dinner guests. Lieberson’s father was president of Columbia Records, while his mother was a ballet dancer and former wife of choreographer George Balanchine. As a young composer, Lieberson excelled at the twelve-tone theory into which he was indoctrinated — the ruling fashion for an ambitious composer of the time — but became creatively frustrated. A period of retreat from composition, spent with a Tibetan mentor, renewed his outlook.
Subsequently Lieberson set out along a new path, first with instrumental works and eventually undertaking his first opera: Ashoka’s Dream, premiered at Santa Fe Opera in 1997. Continuing a projected fourwork cycle he and librettist Douglas Penick had launched with the narrated “campfire opera” King Gesar (1991), Ashoka’s Dream recounts the conversion of an ancient Indian emperor, amid the horrors of war, from a tyrant into an enlightened ruler guided by Buddhist principles of compassion and nonviolence.
Here several key elements of Lieberson’s artistic and personal life converged: inspiration from Buddhism, the revelation gained from transforming words and drama into music, and a first encounter with mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt, who was cast in one of the lead roles. The two married shortly thereafter, and Hunt also became his muse. Writing for the voice, the composer later recalled, “opened up a new world for me.” It was for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s incomparable communicative gift that he wrote Rilke Songs (2001) and Neruda Songs (2005), which won the high-profile Grawemeyer Award.
Similarly, The World in Flower was originally conceived for her voice in the solo mezzo role. Lieberson composed the piece on a commission from the New York Philharmonic, but his wife was unable to perform it before her tragically premature death in July 2006. A further postponement occurred when Lieberson himself became ill with lymphoma — he orchestrated the score while recuperating from his first stage of treatment — before the work was unveiled by the New York Philharmonic in 2009. These performances by the Master Chorale mark the West Coast premiere. The World in Flower belongs to the same creative outpouring from the composer’s final years that also includes Songs of Love and Sorrow, a companion cycle to Neruda Songs for baritone. (The percussion concerto Shing Kham, the final piece Lieberson was working on when he died in 2011, will receive its posthumous premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic next season.)
Lieberson remarked that the title for The World in Flower had been transferred from an earlier, unrealized work-in-progress that was originally envisioned as part of a cycle of dramatic pieces (including Ashoka’s Dream) about iconic enlightened rulers from world history. The World in Flower instead took the form of a cantata for chorus, mezzo and baritone soloists, and orchestra. But its focus nonetheless remains on enlightenment in a twofold sense: the individual epiphanies that occur in each of the texts he has chosen to set and — from a larger perspective — liberation from the ideological intolerance that has warped humanity’s instinctive desire for spiritual meaning.
“We are in a very intolerant age,” writes Lieberson. “The less space we have to live in, it seems the less tolerance we have….” Elsewhere, he has noted, “The basic message of the great Buddhist masters was: be brave enough to experience existence without dogma or beliefs of any kind.” Unlike the Rilke and Neruda Songs, each of which sets a sequence of poems by those respective authors, The World in Flower presents a strikingly diverse series of texts (including poems by Rilke and Neruda along with nine other sources). Lieberson’s sensitive and intuitively convincing selection of texts, which he weaves artfully into an implied meta-narrative celebrating the world as a sacred place, is reminiscent of Brahms’s method in devising his own libretto from scriptural sources for Ein Deutsches Requiem.
In fact, Lieberson’s choices extend beyond such familiar figures from Western literature as Rilke, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Neruda, and Walt Whitman to include the wisdom (from both written and oral sources) of mystics and shamans across the centuries. The composer emphasizes that his intent is not to promote a sentimental ecumenism based on the cliché that “we are all one.” Rather, the pronounced contrasts expressed by each text gather and reinforce each other through the course of the piece to convey an impression of the accumulated richness of human experience.
Thus it’s all the more fitting that Lieberson has The World in Flower begin with the questing ego of Rilke’s lyricism and its open-ended circling “over the things of the world.” In his commentary on the Rilke Songs, he pinpoints the German poet’s “deliberate elusiveness”: “[He] seems to evoke feelings, states of being that are at the edge of awareness, mysterious but close to the heart…in order to provoke our intuition.” Highly wrought poetic language alternates with the visions of medieval mystics and the nature-centered wisdom of the Owl Woman and Uvavnuk, leading once again to the robust poetic ego found in Whitman’s Song of Myself and concluding with a communal Navajo prayer centered on mutuality and balance: “I am restored in beauty/All in harmony, all in Joy! Joy! Joy!”
Rather than articulate a particular religion or spirituality, Lieberson’s rationale is to suggest “the utterances of a fully developed human being.” On another level, this can be seen in the alternation of the mezzo and baritone soloists as female and male points of view who also join together with the collective of the chorus at key moments, especially in the final Navajo prayer. Lieberson also brings the soloists together in impetuous, dance-like unison for much of his setting of Neruda’s image-rich Oceana.
The composer beautifully threads this diversity of sources together through an underlying musical coherence based on recurrent harmonic and textural features. Setting the stage with a brief orchestral prelude in which an alto saxophone plaintively sings, Lieberson uses an array of technical means — word painting, sparing but significant splashes of orchestral color, deft rhythmic responses to the weight of the words, surges of melody — to draw attention to The World in Flower’s intuitions of sacredness. The longing expressed by his music hints at the “infinite space in your garden,” as the poet of the Odes of Solomon has it, where “all men, all women are welcome,” where “all they need do is enter.” A Human, Personal Requiem
In one of his last works, Remembering JFK (An American Elegy) (2010), Lieberson movingly quoted from Johannes Brahms’s valedictory Chorale Preludes, Op. 122. “The poetry of the Lutheran chorale has an elegiac quality,” he remarked, “but at the same time conveys a sense of renewal and rebirth and of the possibilities of basic human goodness.” A similar blend can be found in the much earlier work that was instrumental in establishing Brahms’s reputation: Ein Deutsches Requiem. The composer famously observed that he could just as well have titled his “German” Requiem a “human” Requiem — and, we might add, a “personal” Requiem.
Like The World in Flower, this masterwork of sacred music could also be defined as an idiosyncratic cantata that follows an independent formal design. Brahms explicitly refers to the tradition of the liturgy honoring the deceased, to be sure, yet Ein Deutsches Requiem includes not a single movement corresponding directly to the musical settings familiar from the Latin Mass for the dead. (Master Chorale audiences might recognize another contemporary parallel in Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, which offers yet another gloss on the Christian Requiem.) Rather, using Luther’s muscular German translation of the Bible, Brahms crafted his own libretto from an eclectic choice of scriptural and apocryphal sources: the Psalms, Isaiah, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, and the New Testament.
Not that this in itself was unprecedented. Handel’s Messiah, after all, is the best-known example of a similar approach: the sequence of Jensen’s scriptural selections traces the overall Christian narrative of the nativity, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. Similar strategies can be found in Bach and, even earlier, in the Musikalische Exequien of Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), which also anticipates Brahms’s method of selecting texts for a musical memorial. Yet Brahms culls his sources in such as way as pointedly to steer clear of dogma. Just how potentially troubling this was for the orthodox point of view can be gleaned from the advice of one of the composer’s admirers, Karl Reinthaler (organist of the Bremen Cathedral, where the work was premiered in an earlier state in 1868). Despite his admiration for the Requiem, Reinthaler anxiously remarked: “For the Christian mind, however, there is lacking the point on which everything turns, namely, the redeeming death of Jesus.” Ein Deutsches Requiem turns the focus to consolation for the living rather than pleading for the dead: to acceptance of the impermanence that is the human condition.
The Requiem’s genesis was, typically for Brahms, protracted. The original impetus is generally linked to the death of his great mentor/father figure, Robert Schumann in 1856. Some of Brahms’s ambitious early projects also worked their way into the score, such as the foreboding march music of the second movement, which had once been intended for the epic work that became the D minor Piano Concerto. Later, after the death of his mother in 1865, Brahms added a new movement (the fifth movement, featuring solo soprano). Musicologist Michael P. Steinberg interprets the larger arc of the Requiem as enacting a “reconciliation” between masculinity and femininity, between the voices of an intransigent “paternal militancy” and maternal consolation and lyricism.
Meanwhile, Brahms’s work on the score coincided both with his intensive involvement in choral conducting, which left a crucial imprint on his evolution as a composer, and with his close study of counterpoint and the musical past. In fact, both Handel and Bach serve as clear musical models for Brahms, and he had also begun to delve further back into history, past the high Baroque, in keeping with his deep reverence for the achievements of the past. The ultimate consolation for human impermanence turns out to be the durability of art, as Brahms would later express in his setting of Schiller’s wonderful line from the choral funeral ode Nänie: “Even to be a song of lament on the lips of a loved one is glorious.”
Yet instead of a stuffy encyclopedia of old forms or procedures, Brahms animates his score through his assured balance of reposeful lyricism and drama, homophonic textures and thrillingly animated counterpoint. By the same token, his gestures of reassurance are hardly sentimental platitudes. It’s often pointed out that the fear of damnation expressed by the traditional Dies irae is conspicuously absent here, yet Brahms makes room for its powerful moment of existential dread in the climactic section of the sixth movement. His mastery of formal design is deeply impressive — the way the three-note motif (F-A-B-flat) with which the chorus first enters functions as a unifying device throughout, for example — yet this is music that appeals just as much to the heart as the head. When, in the final moments, the music of consolation from the first movement boomerangs back — as Lieberson might put it — it carries a tremendously satisfying emotional weight.
— Thomas May is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale