This week, December 2,3 and 4, I’ll be conducting The San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in my Nativity oratorio “El Niño,” with a stellar cast of Dawn Upshaw, Jessica Rivera, Michelle DeYoung, and Jonathan Lemalu. The staging is by Kevin Newbury, who recently mounted the hugely successful revival at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.”
Here are some thoughts on the creation of “El Niño,” in part drawn from the chapter in “Hallelujah Junction.”
Before the Nativity oratorio “EL NIÑO” was “El Niño” it was called “How Could This Happen?” This was a phrase I’d found in one of the traditional church antiphons sung on Christmas Eve. In 1997, only a few years before I began composing it, the Pacific coast had weathered one of the most violently stormy winters in history, an event of almost supernatural force that had drenched California in heavy rains and caused large-scale disruption and even death in the poorer regions of Central America. The oceans were abnormally warm, and strange things happened. Tropical fish were sighted as far north as southern Alaska, and rains of unimaginable intensity poured forth day after day in what seemed like a never-ending sequence of drenching storms. That meteorological phenomenon gained the name El Niño— “the little boy,” presumably a mischievous one. I thought that the advent of the Christ child had caused its own kind of spiritual storm, blowing away the corruption and cynicism of the previous world order and offering a new and radically altered vision in its place.
I determined that I would set the most important of these poems not in English translations, but rather in their original language. The final version of the libretto thus became a multi-lingual mix, so richly evocative of our present-day life in California. Poems by Sor Juana and Rosario Castellanos formed the expressive core. I set other poems in English translations by the great Chileans Gabriela Mistral and Vicente Huidobro and by the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío. The emotional and sensory power of these Latin American poets is abundant. The poems are always about the spirit, about the deepest matters of our existence, but they are cast in webs of imagery that is unlike anything I’ve read in North American or European texts. Huidobro’s “Dawn Air”, for example, is an encomium to “the Queen of Heaven”, drawing on his “Creationist” techniques of seemingly incongruous juxtapositions that evoke a dreamlike, psychedelic awareness:
Ah sky blue for the queen in the wind
Ah herd of goats and white hair
Lips of praise and red hair
Animals lost in her eyes
Speak to the skeleton combing its hair
From the tip of the earth to the end of the ages
Tunic and scepter
Amplification of memories
Sound of insects and highways
Speak to the land as the ocean flows
The Nativity story is one of the simplest and most sincere in the Bible. Images of the scene in the stable of Bethlehem, with Mary and the infant surrounded by astonished peasants and placid farm animals, emphasize the humble circumstances of this particular birth. I pinned to the wall above my worktable several images by Giotto and other medieval and early Renaissance painters to remind me of the power of simplicity in rendering this myth. Peter Sellars, who assembled the libretto, drew my attention to several little stories, virtually fairy-tales, that are now classified as “Apocrypha”, miraculous events having to do with the birth and childhood of Jesus that had been written in the century after his life but which the church fathers had expunged from the official canon. One of these apocrypha tales tells of the relationship of Joseph and Mary in much greater psychological detail than anything in either the Mark or Luke Gospels. In this version, Joseph is a much older man than his teenage bride, a widower not much interested in her, marrying her more out of a sense of tribal obligation than for love. He is away on a long trip when his young wife, still a virgin, is visited by Gabriel and conceives her child.
When he at last returns to find her pregnant he immediately fears himself a cuckold, and in his violent rage he nearly does her serious physical harm. In another tale, this attributed to the Gospel of “Pseudo-Matthew,” Joseph and Mary take refuge during their flight from Herod in a cave in the desert where they are suddenly accosted by “many dragons.” The baby Jesus stands down from his mother’s lap and calms the dragons, who then bow down to worship him. “Do not be afraid, nor consider me a child,” the infant Jesus says to his parents. “I have always been a perfect man and am so now.”
El Niño opens with a polyphonic choral setting of an early English poem that I’d first spied in a poster on the interior of a London Underground train:
I sing of a maiden
a matchless maiden
King of all Kings
for her son she’s taken
He comes there so still
His mother’s yet a lass.
He’s like the dew in April
that falleth on the grass.
That lovely image of the dew raining down on Mary set the tone for the work, although later on the music, like those thrashing El Niño winter storms, would be capable of conjuring great violence and destruction.
Once the opening chorus winds down, a terrifying flapping of wings announces the apparition of the angel Gabriel. Gabriel’s voice is intoned by three countertenors singing in perfect homophony a text from one of the English Wakefield Mystery plays. The genderless purity of the countertenor voices lends an air of archaic mystery and devotion to the music, making it resonate in curious ways with music from the Middle Ages. The three of them carry the narrative weight of work, although at times they embody character roles—the angel Gabriel at one point, and the three Magi kings at another.
With their perfectly tuned and blended three-part harmonies, gave the work an aura of unforced grace and Giotto-like simplicity.
I was reminded of the sound world of the Guillaume de Machaut’s Missa de Nostre Dame that had made such an impression on me in my early experimental music days and had figured on my very first new music concert in San Francisco nearly thirty years earlier. Now, in El Niño, Machaut’s strange and alien beauty had resurfaced in my own music.
More on the San Francisco Symphony’s upcoming peformances of “El Niño” in the next Hell Mouth posting.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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