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.

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.”

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.”

Lera Auerbach Part 1: Early years [by Carolyn Talarr]

This series of blog entries will focus on different facets of Lera Auerbach’s life and ever-expanding universe of artistic creation.*

Lera Auerbach seems just to live more than a plain everyday human.  Here are a few of the things she’s done in the past six weeks: the world premiere of a massive work for piano, choir and orchestra (including literal cracking ice as part of the percussion) entitled Arctica, which involved extensive in-person research in the Arctic.  The piece was co-commissioned by the National Geographic and the National Symphony Orchestra; conducted by Teddy Abrams, with Auerbach at the piano, at the Kennedy Center, it premiered to rapturous reviews.

She then zipped back to New Orleans, wherein between researching and composing Arctica, she had been serving since February as the first-ever Artist-in-Residence to the entire city.  There she conducted The Blind, an a capella operatic adaptation of the Maeterlinck play that she had composed in college—it was performed in the dark, with a special lighted-crystal baton she happened to have already. Then a week later: the US premiere of her song cycle Songs of no Return at the Graduate Vocal Arts Program at Bard College in New York State, where she is visiting Artist-in-Residence this year (during her other engagements she’d also been working with her students long-distance). The work is a setting of texts by Sylvia Plath, Maxine Kumin, and Auerbach herself.

Auerbach’s business card reads “pianist, composer, writer, poet, painter, sculptor” (to which she could also add “photographer” and “conductor”, but who’s counting?). No wonder her first book of poetry in English, illustrated with her own artwork, is entitled Excess of Being.  Just imagining the travel involved is exhausting, much less the massive amount of required creative energy!

Auerbach comes by her multi-dimensional life naturally; born in 1973 to a family of musicians on one side and writers on the other, she learned to read and write music and words at the same time and composed her first piece, a song about death, at age 4.  She has said that she knew by that age that she was “born to…work in art”, started serious piano study that year, debuted with an orchestra at 8, and wrote her first opera, which made her famous in the USSR, at 12. From then she won piano competitions that eventually took her to the United States via a tightly-guarded cultural exchange program in late spring 1991 when she was 17.

Once in the US, Auerbach became literally the ‘very last Soviet émigré artist’ (Flamm) before the fall of the USSR; she decided suddenly to stay in the US and risk never seeing her family again, because of the intense freedom and connection of nature and music she felt at the Aspen Music School. She found almost providential support through a family connection who got her an emergency audition on the July 4th weekend (in which she included a composition of her own) and immediate acceptance to the Manhattan School of Music, and then to Juilliard for degrees in both piano performance and composition, and later the College of Music, Theater, and Media in Hanover, Germany.

Although Auerbach has mentioned this fact in press extremely rarely, it’s significant that the city she was born in, Chelyabinsk 22, Russia, was not just an ‘industrial’ city, as virtually every biography notes.  It was, as she describes it, “a ‘secret city’ where the atomic weapons of the USSR were manufactured. In my city were the laboratories where the experiments were carried out by the military. Nobody could enter or leave.” (Couto).

Even more significant, Chelyabinsk was the site of the little-known but catastrophic 1957 Kyshtym Nuclear Disaster.  Covered up by the Soviet government until the 1980s, it is now considered the third-worst ever, causing immediate death and widespread lingering effects ever since. The townspeople were forced to clean up with no protection, there was distinct racism in the different fates suffered by different ethnic groups (e.g. ethnic Russians were evacuated, ethnic Tatars and others forced to stay) and the medical records of those affected are still tightly held by the government. It was and continues to be a radiation danger to the area and anywhere on the continent, the wind blows, with flares and coverups as recently as 2017.  Auerbach joked ironically in the interview with Couto that people from Chelyabinsk “glow green in the dark.”

Given the intensely oppressive atmosphere in Chelyabinsk 22, it’s understandable that escape into mythology, which weaves through much of her work, obviously including her first symphony, the Chimera, has also been integral to her experience of the world since her earliest days.

“As a child, I lived in ancient Greece.  The book of myths was my favorite and the world of jealous gods and god-like humans was more real to me than the world outside of my windows, full of bloody red flags (the red of the Soviet flag symbolized the blood of the heroes of the Revolution) and the Soviet-trinity portraits of Lenin-Marx-Engels with the occasional bushy eyebrows of Brezhnev looking at me from the walls of the buildings. The world outside made much more sense through the perspective of the ancient Greek myths, where it was quite common for a power-protective god to devour all his children. ” (This is the beginning of Auerbach’s own very valuable program notes on Icarus, which she created by extracting the last two movements of her first symphony in 2011; more on this in the second blog entry).

The usual story Auerbach tells is that her preoccupation with the liminal, with human and superhuman, with life and death, came from when her Polish nanny would stroll her through the cemetery as a toddler.  But it’s clear that the influence came from more than just the cemetery strolls; not only mythology, music and poetry but also issues of life and death, decay, constraint, repression, and freedom were powerful, constant companions in her formative years.  It’s only natural that they would end up appearing in her music, poetry, and art.

*All blogs by Carolyn Talarr appeared first at the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s website (www.portlandyouthphil.org) on April 19 and April 22, 2019.