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.

Auerbach’s “Dresden – Ode to Peace“ and Jewish spirituality [by Dr. Pablo Vivanco]

Auerbach’s choral work “Dresden – Ode to peace” was commissioned by the Dresden Frauenkirche Foundation and the Sächsische Staatskapelle and premiered on February 14, 2012, in the Semperoper in Dresden, Germany. The work has been dedicated to the “victims of all nationalist movements around the world” by the composer.[1] An important incentive of the “Ode” was, thus, to create a musical monument to the suffering of the victims in past, present, and future. I want to argue that Auerbach has created an important contemporary work of choral music that confronts the contemporary and historical problems created by the issue of nationalist movements by the means of a radically innovative musical language. The various subtexts of Auerbach’s aesthetic language are influenced by the tradition of the Central-European Jewish Enlightenment and it is a work that addresses contemporary issues by a modern and unique array of aesthetic means.  

Introduction to the “Ode to peace”

The “Ode” represents an unusual contribution to the genre of the Requiem: with the exception of the “Kyrie”, the “Lacrimosa” and the “Libera me”, Auerbach has abstained from including the normative elements of the missa profunctis and replaced them by central prayers of the great world religions. The texts appear in Auerbach’s very own compilation and order. Most of the prayers that Auerbach has selected for the “Ode to peace” are prayers where the personal relationship of the worshipper to god is in the foreground of the text, a choice to which we shall turn further below.[2] There is a centrality of the motif of the individual worshipper wishing to spiritually “climb” to the purest realms of reality in Auerbach’s work, her poetry and visual artworks in general. In the Requiem, the drive (or kavanah) of the individual worshipper to be heard by the highest entity with his prayers is being (re)-planted within the most refined traditions of the Abrahamic religions, this is to say, Auerbach takes the listener back to the origins of the (pre-exilic) Judaic traditions of odes (the psalms) as well as to the roots of non-monotheistic cultures. As such, and with this tendency to encompass vast cultural repositories, Auerbach’s “ode to peace” can be called a modern work of reformation, written for a 21st century audience. We encounter some central psalms of the Jewish-Christian liturgy (for example, Psalms 23, 100, and 134: Auerbach is mindful of the fact that they originated in the Babylonian Exile and that the psalm literature was continued in the post-exilic tradition of mourning). There is also the “Pater noster”, the “Hear, oh Israel” (appearing along with the “Kaddish”, the Jewish prayer of mourning) and the “worship to the arch angels” from the Jewish evening prayer, the “Maariv (but influenced by the tradition of Jewish mysticism), all presented in a radically new sound shape. In addition to prayers from Judaism, Christianity and from Islam (the “Fatiha”), Auerbach included central prayers from Buddhism and Hinduism.

The composition and performance of a work where prayers from all world religions are featured in one single choral piece, solemnly performed in the recently renovated Frauenkirche (a symbol of destruction itself!), yet written by a Russian-American Jewish artist, may well represent a subtle counter-version to the often-heard claim of truthfully achieved diversity in our own early 21st century societies.[3] However, mindful of the multilayered symbolism of “Dresden” as a historical place, Auerbach refuses to let the audience identify her work with any concrete historical events or culturally bound memories.[4] Instead, the composer offers a rich venue for the audience to reflect upon the history of persecution, suffering, and martyrdom and she finds innovative ways to deal with the complexity of it by means of her own musical language. The rich texture of Auerbach’s music and references may be shortly, exemplified by one of the main motifs in the Requiem: The “Ode to peace” contains clearly discernible references to sacred music from Dresden. The so-called Dresden “Amen”, a Protestant liturgical tune from the early 1800s, appears all the way through the “Ode to peace”. It has been previously used by Felix Mendelssohn –Bartholdy in his “Reformation Symphony”. Three decades later, it also prominently appeared as a Leitmotiv in Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal”. In the Symphony, the “Amen” is embedded in an orchestral work representing the hopeful and optimistic culture of the rising Christian and Jewish liberal middle classes in Central Europe in the mid-19th century.[5] With quite different (if not opposite) intentions, the composer Richard Wagner used the Dresden “Amen” in his late opera “Parsifal” in an attempt to signify a lasting triumph of German nationalism and political Protestantism over the menacing cultural “threat” of liberal poets and musicians. To do so effectively, the composer brought a medieval mythos of the holy Grail in line with his own desire to “clean” music from the “entrepreneurial abuse” of music.[6] As if commenting on this music historical trajectory, the Dresden Amen appears throughout Auerbach’s Ode: in the archaic sounding opening and, later, in the “Amen” (no. 15) as the materialized “angel of history” who laments the catastrophes that nationalist movements have caused. The counterpoint to this historical trajectory is a restorative understanding of the Jewish Enlightenment’s reflections on the culture of Ancient Jewish temple music.

The Dresden Frauenkirche as a “Prayerhouse of reason”

The Berlin Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn considered the synagogue of the future in his important work “Jerusalem or religious power and Judaism” (1783) as a “prayerhouse of reason”, a place, where, as he pointed out, neither “dissenters” nor the unbelieving pagans or atheists were to be excluded from the ceremony (the philosopher even allows sinners to be accepted into the temple).[7] Moses Mendelssohn, who was at once a Universalist and at the same time an observant Jew, projected his vision of a “Temple of Reason” onto the year 2240 (a year that, as his biographer Alexander Altman noticed, corresponded to the messianic year 6000 in the Jewish calendar.) This embrace of outsiders and dissenters by the Jewish philosopher can be immediately paired with Auerbach’s intentions: The public performance of the “Ode to Peace” in Dresden 2012 can likewise be considered as a bold stage act or the composer’s own a projection of the “prayerhouse of reason” (It is crucial to note Auerbach’s decision to include the Prayer of Father Judge in her Requiem, the priest of the New York fire fighters’ who has been quickly recognized as the official first victim of the attacks from September 11, 2001. Judge has previously in life confessed to have had homosexual inclination).[8] Moreover, the fact that the “Dresden Requiem” has 18 parts (18 equals the word for life –chai – in the Hebrew alphabet – a conscious choice by the composer) gives us a clue for the essentially Utopian or restorative-synthetic dimension of Auerbach’s important choral work.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment were not naïve: they did not assume that reasonable behavior or an encompassing tolerance can be achieved easily by the public and the contemporary composer Auerbach is as little naïve as were her predecessors: In this draft, we can only roughly outline the common premises of Auerbach and Mendelssohn. One important element is the function of the music which is comparable to the function of rituals in Judaism. In his “Jerusalem”, Moses Mendelssohn has also outlined his understanding of the religious function of Jewish laws. The ritual law (such as the halakhic prescription to touch the mezuza on the doorpost) was described by Mendelssohn as educational or didactic tools for the observant Jew, symbolic and gestural daily actions that prompt the practitioner to reflect upon universal divine truths without forcing the believer onto them. Mendelssohn was the first modern Jew who defended the Jewish ritual laws and customs against critics from the outside as an encoded scripture in its own right, a scripture which hints at spiritual contents and truths but doesn’t visualize them (in Mendelssohn’s understanding of the revelation, this was a preventive tool against idolatry).[9] Due to the anti-visual relation between the sign and the signified, performing rituals will trigger questions or pedagogical explanations on spiritual truths and history but no more than that. This anti-visual quality of Jewish rituals is comparable to the relation between tune and text in Auerbach’s requiem. Relatedly, Auerbach stated about her Requiem:

“Perhaps the concept here is to simply open the door to the spiritual references and then each listener can make their own voyage inside. In these subjects, there are no answers only questions, and the question themselves are the answers.” (Lera Auerbach in an email correspondence with me on March 19, 2018)

Auerbach’s work is a guide for the contemporary listener, but there is no concrete associative direction the audience will be led to take. The music in the prayer-house of reason is therefore analogous to the function of Jewish rituals in Moses Mendelssohn’s philosophy.[10] But in what respect is this “restorative”? In another study, Mendelssohn suggested that liturgical services at the time of the first Jewish temple period were less structured and less orderly performed than anything that came later.[11] Mendelssohn suggested that the original, pre-exile Hebrew poetry followed a certain “natural” path of expression of the praying individual. Hebrew poetry has been more spontaneous and improvisational and therefore lacked any clearly discernible metrical form. This natural and disorderly quality is not only present in Auerbach’s quite personal compilation of the prayers in the “Ode to peace”. Every prayer that Auerbach has set into music also follows the rhythmical pattern of the words of the original language. Auerbach’s musical rendition follows the accentuation and word rhythms inscribed in the Hebrew original. By doing so, she is taking the listener back to the original, but by now forgotten style of individual praying and expression at practice in the Jewish antiquity.

Second, Mendelssohn’s holistic approach to encompass and reach out to anyone who desires entry into the prayer-house of reason is present in another technique of composition in the “Ode to peace”. As Mendelssohn points out in his own work, the Ancient Hebrew psalm literature intended to move the listener so strongly that the he becomes the observer of his own emotional responses. The music of the psalms, Mendelssohn points out, underlines and supports the passions reflected in the religious poetry. The music doesn’t merely illustrate the text but infixes the spiritual component in the mind and heart.”[12] The music has both the function to animate the listener and to impress him so strongly as to prompt him to reflect on the more abstract spiritual contents. When Auerbach uses the famed scale from the Dresden Amen in number no. 15 of the requiem, the upward moving cadenza mirrors efforts of the praying individual to “ascend” to the divine sphere with all his individual strength. The music energizes him further.

Auerbach is an artist and musician who has deeply thought about the therapeutical and energetic effects of music and its quality to appeal to personal emotions.  In the context of a modern spiritual work, these are energetic traces of a “musical religion” that Auerbach intentionally left in the score and which need to be further analyzed.

[1] Auerbach: Dresden Requiem (Score).

[2] It is important to note that Auerbach left out the “dies irae”, the portrayal of the divine “day of wrath” from her work.

[3] European citizens are nowadays often confronted with the idea that our civilization firmly rests on the pillars of Christianity and Judaism only. Auerbach’s Requiem reminds us to the fact that our vision of a realized cohabitation of the religious cultures is, at best, slightly flawed.

[4] The city was subjected to four atrocious bomb raids on February 13 and 15 1945. Moreover, the square around the Frauenkirche has also, since the 1990s, disturbingly become an annual gathering place for rightwing extremists on February 14. And, finally, the city of Dresden has had an important “seat” in the cultural history of the Lutheran Reformation. Ther are concrete references in the work to this “reformist” aspect in Dresden’s history.

[5] For Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and his generation, Protestantism represented far more than simply a “confessional creed”: the culture of the Reformation, its turn to individual understanding of religious spirituality reflected a nearly Utopian belief of having achieved full emancipation among deeply secular (or spiritually fallen?) Jews: the premise of full emancipation for Jews and other religious minorities in the German-speaking lands.

[6] This history of adaptation of the “Amen” and, indirectly, the history of anti-Semitism, is reflected in the provisional stages of Auerbach’s Requiem. In an early stage of the work, Auerbach intended to include passages from Martin Luther’s infamous “On the Jews and their lies” (1543) in her work – a text that has been considered as a blueprint of the destruction of the European Jews in WWII.

[7] Moses Mendelssohn: Jerusalem order religiöse Macht und Judentum. In: Alexander Altmann (ed.): Gesammelte Schriften, Volume 8, pp. 21 passim.

[8] Dresden Requiem, No.6.

[9] The holy scripture is inside the mezuzah. The believer only touches the outside box, it becomes a daily mnemotechnical spiritual tool.

[10] Moses Mendelssohn’s commentary to Exodus 15 (the song at the reed sea) in Gesammelte Schriften, Volume 3.

[11] According to Mendelssohn, there is a strong dividing line between pre-exilic and the post-Babylonian exile manifestation of the Ancient Jewish religious liturgy and the temple service.

[12] Mendelssohn: Gesammelte Schriften (ed. Alexander Altmann), Volume 3, Page 191.


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