Listening Afresh: Music of Adams & Mozart
By Thomas May
Both of the works on our season-opening program have been obscured by a great deal of extra-musical controversy. John Adams’s second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, recounted a complex story based on current events—the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in October 1985, during which four Palestinian terrorists murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound Jewish American. Accused of being at best a naïve indulgence in political correctness that featured “singing terrorists,” the opera spawned protests as soon as it was introduced in 1991. The debate only intensified in the wake of the 9-11 attacks.
Just as ongoing controversy over the opera’s subject matter has distracted from its artistic significance, the mythology surrounding Mozart’s Requiem—both its mysterious origins and its posthumous completion—has sometimes overshadowed the composer’s own identifiable voice. The excerpts we hear tonight from Klinghoffer as well as the Requiem address the recurrent drama of our condition, caught between fear and the terror of death and the attempt to make sense of loss. And in the warmth of the human voice in song, both find the consolation that touches us most deeply.
Behind the Headlines: Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer
In 1987, the creative team of John Adams, poet-librettist Alice Goodman, and director Peter Sellars together introduced a novel paradigm for American opera with the premiere of Nixon in China. They developed it further in their subsequent collaboration, The Death of Klinghoffer, which was first staged in 1991. The results surprised audiences who anticipated a Saturday Night Live-style parody for Nixon or, for Klinghoffer, a melodramatic thriller.
Adams, already pigeon-holed by the convenient (but inaccurate) label of “Minimalism,” was once more simple-mindedly categorized: this time as the purveyor of “CNN opera.” Yet it’s precisely what is missing in our era of instant information and attention-grabbing headlines that is at the heart of these operas (as well as of the more recent Doctor Atomic). They attempt to explore what is behind the news—not to confirm what we already know.
“I’m not interested in lecturing my audience,” says Adams. “What appeals to me in subjects like the Nixon-Mao meeting, or the Achille Lauro incident, or the atomic bomb, is their power as archetypes, their ability to summon up in a few choice symbols the collective psyche of our time.”
While Nixon playfully alludes to the conventions of grand opera, The Death of Klinghoffer turns to the older model of baroque oratorio—above all the Passions of Bach, with their intercutting of individual and collective points of view. In order to give voice to the intense, conflicting emotions of Klinghoffer, Adams was impelled to enrich his musical language with melodic elaboration and a darker and more complex harmonic palette. It’s no coincidence that the polarizations inherent in his subject led Adams to transform his musical style.
As in a Passion, choruses serve as a key architectural element to shape Klinghoffer. The opera includes a total of seven. While each has a distinct, self-contained character, the choruses also complement one another and cast the narrative they encircle into a new light. They introduce a constellation of opposed pairs that also reveal shared characteristics: Palestinians and Jews (both exiled), night and day (whose appearance ushers in dramatic turning points), ocean and desert (both revealing God’s presence in unexpected ways), and the single Chorus of Hagar and the Angel (which sets nature against the supernatural).
Along with their structural role, the choruses add an important dimension by expressing a variety of perspectives. Sometimes they take on the guise of a Greek chorus commenting, at a removal, on the action—both on what has happened and in anticipation of it—but they are not limited to this. At other times they take on collective roles, enact their own dramas, or establish a sense of epic backdrop. Outside the context of the opera, Adams specifies that the Klinghoffer choruses may be performed in any combination and order. For these performances, we hear five of the seven choruses.
In lieu of an overture, the two-act opera begins with a prologue that includes the paired Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and Chorus of Exiled Jews. Both choruses, of equal length, begin simply and softly but go on to portray dramas in microcosm through shifting musical textures. Unison women’s voices take up their fragile lament in F minor to begin the opera. Immediately, the chorus encapsulates one of the fundamental tensions that will course through Klinghoffer: the tension between the cold, harsh facts of the present (the “news”) and the timeless cultural memory (the realm of myth) whereby we try to make sense of individual experience.
So, too, Adams’s sparse vocal line begins to unfold in poetic elaborations spurred by memory. Yet the memory takes a violent turn as the music speeds up in a crescendo of terrifying rage for full chorus. The Exiled Jews begin their chorus in a melancholy G minor. The dynamic level remains subdued, but, after opening with four-part chorus, Adams varies the choral texture between men and women to dramatize the allegorical dialogue of Goodman’s text. Close, fragrant harmonies underline the imagery of enduring love.
The Chorus of Hagar and the Angel serves as a sort of prelude beginning the second act (the original production, in Brussels, featured an extensive choreographic counterpart by Mark Morris). It recounts a core narrative of exile, as Abraham reluctantly sends Hagar and Ishmael, the son he has fathered with her, into the wilderness. Adams suggests the anxiety of being on the run with a chasing bass figure, but he mixes this with a hint of the mystical in the otherworldly, strangely accented countermelody of the digital keyboard and piccolo. At the angel’s revelation ending the chorus, the chasing figure finally comes to rest on a peaceful cadence.
The Day Chorus is the last in the opera, occurring right after Leon Klinghoffer’s murder. Goodman’s exquisite poetry is at its most oracular here. Adams anchors the T.S. Eliot-like obliqueness of her detailed imagery in music of haunting simplicity, combining elegy and meditation. The work of memory and mourning has only begun with the attempt to come to terms with grief. Instead of closure, the accompanying musical pattern continues in an implied fade-out.
Following a pivotal scene between one of the terrorists and the ship’s captain, the Night Chorus erupts to conclude the first act with high-voltage intensity. It recalls the turbulent music that ended the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians. With the unleashed pace and fury of a baroque rage aria, its dark sound omits violins. Adams remarks that he thought of “the image of a pogrom, the terrible fear of a hunted person” as he wrote. The fear becomes literally wordless in the churning ostinato intoned by basses, while the dissonant total fabric of chorus and orchestra looks ahead to some of the most chilling moments in Doctor Atomic.
Against the Dying of the Light: Mozart’s Requiem
The state of incompletion is, in a different way, one of the most haunting aspects of Mozart’s Requiem. For all its familiarity, there’s a chance you may not immediately recognize parts of his final masterpiece in the incarnation performed on our program. The traditional and most frequently encountered version of the Requiem is the one completed by Mozart’s pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr at the request of the composer’s widow, Constanze.
Over the past two centuries, countless music lovers have pondered the extent to which the Requiem as we know it represents Mozart’s own musical thoughts. The variety of theories is correspondingly vast, but here’s a very brief recap of the generally prevailing view: Mozart was able to write out only the Introitus and Kyrie in full score—the vocal parts and orchestration, which includes two basset horns (a type of clarinet), two bassoons, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, strings, and basso continuo. He sketched out only the vocal parts and continuo line for the Dies Irae sequence (indicating some suggested instrumentation here and there) up to the Lacrimosa, where his manuscript breaks off after eight bars, and for the Offertorium.
Thus Süssmayr would have orchestrated all of the Dies Irae and Offertorium. He would also have composed in entirety the rest of the Lacrimosa and all of the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei, reverting to Mozart’s Introitus and Kyrie music for the concluding Lux aeterna and Cum sanctis tuis. But a significant new perspective opened up in 1962 when new sketches were discovered. These revealed that Constanze’s claim that Süssmayr merely filled out what her husband had indicated as his intentions—long dismissed as an unlikely spin in favor of authenticity—might after all have a grain of truth.
In the 1990s, Mozart scholar and pianist Robert Levin followed through on those implications and prepared an alternative edition. While basing his work on the Süssmayr completion, Levin emends and clarifies some of the orchestration so that it more closely matches his understanding of Mozartean style gleaned through deep, lifelong study. But the most noticeable change is his replacement of the simple cadence on “Amen” at the end of Süssmayr’s setting for the Lacrimosa. In its place, Levin interpolates a full fugue that he has composed in the manner of Mozart, drawing on material from one of the belatedly discovered sketches.
Regardless of the particular edition used, there can be no mistaking Mozart’s vision in the Requiem’s most powerful sections: the opening and Kyrie (which have come to frame the work) and the Dies Irae sequence. This is, moreover, the music of his most mature style, drawing his earliest memories of the rich ceremonies of Catholicism together into a potent mix with the Enlightened ideals of his Masonic humanism, as expressed above all in The Magic Flute: music of the same vintage as those other miraculous products of 1791, including the final Piano Concerto in B-flat, the Clarinet Concerto, and La Clemenza di Tito.
Yet, no doubt prompted by his subject, Mozart writes some of his darkest music, infusing the solemnity and terror of death—in the key of D minor, which he had used several years earlier to conjure Don Giovanni’s fate—with his instinctively operatic sensibility. The central drama enacted in Mozart’s Requiem is clear from the contrast between the solemn, relentless processional that opens the work—the fact of death—and the rays of hope that intermittently shine through, perhaps most movingly in the Recordare, with its plea to be remembered (tellingly scored for solo quartet). And the plea, in Mozart’s sublime setting, is not only for the departed but for those left grieving.
Thomas May writes frequently about the arts and is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.