Lera Auerbach Part 2: “Chimera” – The Backstory (1) [by Carolyn Talarr]

Commissioned by the Düsseldorf Symphony
John Fiore, conductor
Premiere Date: 11/10/2006


1. Aegri somnia (The sick man’s dream)
2. Post tenebras lux (After darkness, light)
3. Gargoyles
4. Et in Arcadia ego (I [death] am here, even in the perfect countryside)
5. Siste, viator (Halt, traveler)
6. Humum mandere (To bite the dust)
7. Requiem for Icarus

chi·me·ra /kīˈmirə,kəˈmirə/  Noun

1. (in Greek mythology) a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail.

2. a thing that is hoped or wished for but in fact is illusory or impossible to achieve.

an organism containing a mixture of genetically different tissues, formed by processes such as fusion of early embryos, grafting, or mutation.

All three of these definitions resonate throughout the seven movements of Lera Auerbach’s first symphony.  But why “Chimera”? And why those particular titles?  We must remember that Auerbach learned to write music and words at the same age, and is internationally renowned for both her music and her poetry (as well as her visual art).  Just as her body of work crosses and blurs artistic boundaries, so every aspect of any of her creations, whether text, image, or music, makes a vital contribution to the overall experience.

A clue to the significance of the title can be found in the symphony’s origins: Auerbach’s music for The Little Mermaid, a ballet that premiered in 2005.  PYP is fortunate that Rafael DeStella, Artistic Coordinator of Auerbach Studio, spoke with us directly at length about the connections between the two works.  He described:

“As composers in the past have created suites from ballets, the concept of bringing a work from the stage to the concert hall lent itself very well for this type of connection.  One of her great interests her whole life has been chimeras, creatures made from different worlds. The mermaid is a chimera, in a spiritual way, but also in a physical way [emphasis mine]. So, the concept of morphing the ballet score into a concert work was very natural.”

Of course a mermaid is already inherently a chimera of sorts, a woman with a fish’s lower body.  But the Little Mermaid takes it farther; to win her human love she abandons her graceful fins for legs and painful feet. When that love proves impossible, she ultimately transmutes into “a transparent, beautiful being…a daughter of the air” (Andersen).

Yet note that the title of this symphony is not simply “The Mermaid Suite”.  DeStella pointed out that by envisioning “…Mermaid as Chimera, a lot of the titles of the symphony [i.e. the movement titles listed above] connect. Once you see this sort of mirror perspective, you can find them within the story of the mermaid as well. It’s a different interpretation of the same music by the composer.”

One clear instance of that different interpretation is that Icarus suddenly appears in the title of the last movement.  His image is so powerful that in 2011 Auerbach created a third piece, the standalone symphonic tone poem Icarus, from the last two movements of the symphony.  Auerbach wrote in the program notes for the premiere of that piece:

“Icarus was one of my heroes (or antiheroes, depending on the interpretation) – the winged boy who dared to fly too close to the sun.  The wings were made by his father, Daedalus, a skilled craftsman, who earlier in his life designed the famous labyrinth in Crete that held the Minotaur. Daedalus was held prisoner in Crete and the wings were his only way to escape.

Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun or too close to the ocean, but what teenager listens to his father? Exhilarated by freedom, by his own youth, by the feeling of flight, Icarus soared higher and higher until the wax on his wings melted and he fell into the ocean.

The desire to go beyond the boundaries into the ecstatic visionary realm of soaring flight is essentially human. In some ways this desire to transcend the everyday-ness is what it means to be human. That is why this myth has resonated for centuries. Icarus knows the danger of flying too high, but the risk is justified in his eyes. He needs to fly as high as he can, beyond what is possible – it is his nature.”

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