Lera Auerbach Part 4: “Chimera” The Music [by Carolyn Talarr]

According to Rafael DeStella, the symphony is “a ‘chimera’ of two different versions of The Little Mermaid: the original 3-hour version that premiered in Copenhagen, and the 2.5-hour version done in Hamburg, conducted by the late Klauspeter Seibel.  Certain parts cut to make the Hamburg version later found their way into the symphony. Seibel also conducted the US Premiere of “Chimera” in New Orleans with his Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in 2008.  He loved the piece so much that he was editing the recording of it on his deathbed, and requested that the transcendent, ethereal final movement, “Requiem for Icarus”, which corresponds to the “Coda in the Stars” in The Little Mermaid, be played at his funeral.

Auerbach’s choice to ‘chimerize’ The Little Mermaid into her first symphony attests to the deep significance the music and the story hold for her. In the interview with Rodrigo Couto, she offered it as an example of one piece that could represent her entire oeuvre:

“In my life there is a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ this work. It was very complex to write, but it is also the most successful, since it has been represented more than 150 times in several countries. The Little Mermaid has been such a transcendent work for me that at the end of it I have signed with my own blood.”

The complex, intense course of “Chimera” never lets us settle into comfortable predictability, but somehow still allows us to feel grounded in recognizable sounds.  As one critic put it,

“Auerbach is Russian, but she seems to have inhaled all her predecessors in a single gulp. Not only composers from Rachmaninoff to Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke but also heroes of literature dating back to Gogol and Pushkin. The result is a singular voice, rooted in traditional forms and tonality, but still contemporary.”  (Stryker)

Some other critics have tried to contain the ‘singular voice’ in “Chimera” and Auerbach’s other music within certain labels, but Auerbach, like her music, finds that effort irrelevant:

“All of my works have tonal centers, a place where you feel more at home than in other places. Unless you create a home base, how can you create dissonance? And my music is very dissonant, very dramatic – because there’s always a sense of knowing where the coordinates are….As a listener, I really don’t care if what I am listening to is called ‘atonal’, or ‘tonal’, or ‘neo-this’, or ‘neo-that’, or even ‘post-this’, or whatever else it may be called. I am either changed by the musical experience, (perhaps troubled, perhaps inspired, moved, challenged, passionate), or I am bored and the whole experience leaves me cold.” (Peters)

There is no risk of boredom or cold indifference with “Chimera”, however. Understandably since it was born from a 3-hour ballet, there is no ‘sonata form’ in this symphony, no traditional progression from allegro opening through andante middle, perhaps adding a minuet before the allegro/rondo end. The 3 hours are distilled into a little over a half-hour-long suite of 7 subtly related movements in which arcs are drawn and depths plumbed, driven, but not constrained, by the currents and tides of the originating story.

Several specific musical motifs or threads weave in and out of the movements, such as the very first violin solo after the ominous, ponderous opening. Soon after that comes a curious, hesitant repeated major second followed by the minor third that sounds first in the oboe then later in the violin.

These motifs swirl around in that movement and then return in multitudes of permutations in the rest of the symphony, sometimes accompanied by another striking motif, the intense, urgent, accented snap-pizzicato that first appears in the movement “Gargoyles”.

Familiar diatonic harmony and less-familiar dissonance, romantic and more modern idioms and instruments (such as the theremin and crystal glasses) intermingle almost by the second, creating a whole that encompasses and surpasses all of them.  This musical syncretism of “Chimera” is joined by the same “connective tissue” as are Mermaid and Icarus to the creative process Auerbach has relied on since childhood: ‘chimerizing’ stories and images from ancient Greece and all over history to make sense of, and express, contemporary existence.

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