Lera Auerbach Part 3: “Chimera” – The Backstory (2) [by Carolyn Talarr]

An abundance of associative ‘connective tissue’ joins the characters of Mermaid, Chimera, and Icarus; all of them are, in different ways, more-than-natural, impossible beings.  While Chimera is a mythical mix of species, both Mermaid and Icarus try to escape the natural forms which imprison them, re-form themselves as beings of art(ifice), and pay the ultimate price for their attempted transcendence.

For her part, Auerbach has said that she wrote The Little Mermaid with all the “hunger, maximalism, idealism of youth”, words that describe both herself and the character of Icarus.  The similarities continue: “Every concert…is about being transformed. If we’re not transformed, we’ve just wasted two hours.  For an artist, it’s important never to lose the life and death intensity [emphases mine].”

These similarities speak to Auerbach’s personal connection with her ‘hero’ Icarus, Mermaid, and Chimera.  DeStella confirmed the general association between those who make art(ifice) of themselves and those who make art:

“…the concept of the artist that searches for perfection, for the ultimate, but fails, and falls…there is an aphorism in [Auerbach’s poetry collection] Excess of Being that ‘Every day a new Icarus kills himself’. Little Mermaid is an Icarus, searching for what she cannot reach.”

Beyond all these specific titles, associations, and implications, however, Auerbach initially decided to title not only the symphony but also all the individual movements for several reasons.  On one level, she did it simply because, as she has said, “The conventional titles such as ‘Fantasia’ or ‘Sonata’ or ‘Symphony’ are acceptable, of course, but they are also a bit dry and boring.” True enough; further, as DeStella recounted, “she was keenly aware that unless you do it, someone else will do it later, [so] she took a proactive approach”.

But again, Auerbach’s title(s) didn’t stay within the context of the ballet; by bringing in the image of Chimera, she deliberately distanced this new work from its original context.  The Latin phrases as movement titles provide distance from the original story as well while suggesting that the stakes in this music are nothing less than life and death.

Why did she want to create space between the ballet and the symphony? DeStella explained Auerbach’s deliberate choice with seemingly paradoxical reasoning:

“The titling of the symphony is part of her opus, a conceptual component.  It [speaks to] the question, which really arose in the 19th to 20th centuries: the abstraction of music. [Auerbach] likes to say ‘there are two opposing concepts that are both equally true: all music is abstract, has no story, or all music has story’, because we all make our own stories when we listen to a piece that has no words” [emphases mine].

Each individual in the audience has the right, the freedom to choose the story; the composer’s story is just one of many, no more relevant than that of an audience member.”

Indeed, the Finnish National Ballet later used the Little Mermaid score to create a ballet on the story of Cinderella!

So to Auerbach, programmatic titles both stand as valid insights into her original vision and offer a structure that facilitates, more than “dry” conventional titles would, every audience member’s ability to experience the music themselves and create their own unique visions.

Or as she herself put it, using images that suggest that, with the titles as ‘wings’, as it were, audiences can and should experience a kind of transformation of their own: “The title is [an] invitation for the listener to explore his or her own memories and the transcendental qualities that exist within us, and allows us to break free from this cage of everyday routine and bring the wonder of life.”

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