Compelling “Creations” Through the Centuries
By Victoria Looseleaf
In the beginning there were the chords, the tones, the primal hummings: Stanley Kubrick's apes, hurling bones skyward in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the tympanic thrashings of Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra, the erect simians signifying a new world order; Stravinsky's ethereal bassoon noodlings a prelude to the dissonant and utterly unpredictable music of The Rite of Spring, its fresh sonorities ushering in a controversial freedom; and, shocking in its soothing quietude, the serene beginnings of Franz Joseph Haydn's Schöpfungsmesse. Nicknamed The Creation Mass, it is derived from the composer incorporating into the Gloria movement a quotation from Adam and Eve's duet from his Creation, an oratorio beginning with magisterial octave Cs, God-worthy in their gravity. Composed immediately prior to this 1801 work, this mass was obviously hardwired into Haydn's DNA.
Ah, Haydn! If anyone had a charmed life, it was this Austrian son of a farmer and wheelwright. Born in 1732, the erstwhile boy singer would not only be gainfully employed for nearly four decades by the royal family, Esterhazy, but, as the most famous composer of his day, his celebrity status allowed him to be f?ted, idolized and entertained by crowned heads. Were he alive today, Haydn, who had a bad marriage, the requisite mistress and more connections than Cingular, would have been fodder for bloggers and BlackBerries, as well as fronting the hippest MySpace page in cyberspace.
That the composer was also part of a musical triumvirate that included Mozart and Beethoven (whom he once taught) - the purveyors of Classical music - added to his legacy. Of his 104 symphonies, 50 some concertos, 84 string quartets and 12 masses, it is certainly the final six masses written during the last decade of his life that represent a compositional flowering. As if channeled from unseen forces and assuming symphonic forms, they are a direct result of Haydn having worked in London with the cream of orchestral musicians. Demanding nonpareil virtuosity, the mass is performed here by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Written to celebrate the name day of Princess Maria Esterhazy, whose husband, Prince Nikolaus, employed Haydn as Kappellmeister, this 45-minute opus in Bflat major is Haydn's largest scale setting of a mass to date. Weaving together form, harmony and expression, as well as different styles, Haydn is, in essence, summarizing his own musical achievements. Replacing his usual energetic Kyrie with a solemn introduction, the music then surprises with a solo for mezzo-soprano. As each of the six masses makes use of the same text, the challenge was keeping the score fresh. But in another brilliant gambit, Haydn, after the initial 29 bars of near-pianissimo dynamics, then delivers a rollicking 6/8 tempo. Peasant-like, this is the work's true opening, also functioning similarly to the first movement of any Haydn symphony, with, of course, the addition of chorus. The Gloria, after customary brass fanfares, moves into the minor key, appropriately set to match the text's grimness, before returning to a more playful mode and the aforementioned Creation quote. A bass solo juxtaposed over the words, “who takest away the sins of the world,” Haydn quashed the darkness of the liturgical text with jocular music, emboldened by his belief that most sins are nothing more than lapses resulting from human frailty. Forced by Empress Marie Therese to write an alternate version omitting the “Creation” theme, Haydn obliged, hearing it played thusly at the mass's first performance, where, reportedly, he was dissatisfied with a solo organ passage and, ousting the organist, performed the passage himself. As for the multi-word Credo, Haydn let loose with extremely difficult violin writing (carpal syndrome be damned!), the music surging into standard sonata form before the organ is introduced as obligato. Listen, too, for the 'amens,' rising from the nadir of the basses to a high Bflat, with the ensuing Sanctus, normally a flamboyant showpiece, here unusually delicate. Reveling in unexpected key relationships, Haydn begins the Agnus dei in G major, building with full chorus and orchestra, to running 16th notes before launching into a festive 'Dona nobis pacem' and the mother lode of fugues. Strewn with elaborately patterned offbeat accents, the music momentarily turns dark (Bflat minor), before careening towards a smoking, enormous finale. Sublime, supreme, staggeringly beautiful, time's infinite march has been punctuated with this glorious music, when all, at least for these moments, is right with the world.
A composer also in tune with the world - literally and metaphorically - is Baltimore-born Philip Glass. But unlike Haydn, Glass was not granted the privilege to work with royalty. Indeed, early in his career the young musician struggled financially, toiling as both cab driver and plumber. Now 69, this titan of Minimalism, one who studied with such disparate types as Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar, had his first large-scale triumph in 1976 with the Robert Wilson-directed opera Einstein on the Beach. Bursting with Glass' signature unremitting rhythmic patterns and simple diatonic chords, the work shot him to international prominence, leaving behind any traces of leaky pipes or disgruntled taxi fares. Now hugely successful, the composer has proven equally prolific, his formidable body of work including string quartets and concertos as well as numerous operas, film scores and dance works. Itaipú, the second of Glass' three “nature portraits” for orchestra (The Light and The Canyon were the first and third, respectively), was a commission by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Premiered in 1989, it was inspired by a trip Glass made to the construction of the world's largest hydroelectric plant on the Parana River (accent accent ague on the third 'a), which forms the border between Brazil and Paraguay. Itaipú or “singing stone” in Guarani, makes use of a text drawn from the creation myth of Guarani Indians, a people, unfortunately, displaced by the project. Used to supplement rather than duplicate the thrust of music and action, the text functions much as it did in Glass' earlier “portrait operas” (Einstein, Satyagraha from 1980, and 1984's Akhnaten), the dramatic values also epic in scope. Dealing with the conflicts between technology and humanity, Glass establishes symphonic moods in four movements, the 35-minute score churning and roiling much like the Brazilian river itself. Calling for a large orchestra with exotic instrumentation, notably Amazonian percussion, the music also draws upon folk elements, but in typical Glass fashion: By dint of its homogeneous pulsings and repetitious melodic cells that stretch and shrink, images of ducts and turbines are conjured, the orchestral and vocal vacillations spreading out to alter the shape and flow of the music. Alternately gloomy and exhilarating, the score sweeps the listener up in a gargantuan tide of emotions. Dramatic, palpable, eternally alive, this journey of the river Parana that translates as, “the place where music was born,” wends its way from the Brazilian highlands - the first movement Mato Grosso - through The Lake, which is held back by The Dam, and finally, To the Sea. An exploration of an alternative world, it is strangely not unfamiliar to us. Enveloped by this wash of sound, we, too, flow through the dark heart of technology, which Glass one said, “is not neutral and takes over everything” to arrive at a place of musical perfection.
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Reuters and Performances Magazine. In addition, she is the Program Annotator for the Geffen Playhouse as well as the producer-host of the long-running cable access television show on the arts, The Looseleaf Report. This is her third season with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.