Musical Times

Echoes of old beliefs

Echoes of old beliefs

Whittall, Arnold

Birtwistle’s Last Supper and Adams’s El Nino

Are Christian symbolism and practices still viable subjects for modern art? ARNOLD WHITTALL considers two recent musical instances of their appropriation.

MUSICALLY, the twentieth century expired in a riot of pluralism: a diversity that, for some, represents unsettling cultural confusion, for others joyous stylistic and technical freedom. Risking an enormous generalisation, I’d suggest that no latetwentieth-century composition – not even Andriessen’s Trilogy of the last day (1993-97) – more perfectly embodied that cultural diversity, in the context of subject-matter focused on death, than Gerard Grisey’s starkly vivid last work, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil – Four songs for crossing the threshold (1996-98). Grisey has said of his ‘musical meditation on death’ that ‘the chosen texts come from four civilisations (Christian, Egyptian, Greek, Mesopotamian) and share a fragmentary discourse on the ineluctable nature of Death’.1 Nevertheless, the work’s ending is neither dark nor pessimistic, but what Grisey terms ‘music for the dawn of a humanity finally disencumbered of the nightmare’: a lullaby following the Epic of Gilgamesh’s depiction of a devastating flood, and suggesting – or so the composer’s rather enigmatic note implies – a new phase for a humanity freed of all taboos and nightmares, including those, one might surmise, of Christian-era religion.

The possibility that, in the West, Christian symbolism and practices are still available for meaningful modern art, whether to provide a context that evokes transcendence, or themselves to be transcended, as in Grisey’s work, certainly cannot be discounted. Two composers with avowedly strong religious impulses, Jonathan Harvey and John Tavener, explored apocalyptic Christian imagery in two particularly powerful late-century pieces – Death of light/Light of death (1998) and Total eclipse (1999). But my focus in this article is on a pair of compositions, first performed in 2000, in which two very different composers not primarily associated with sacred music or religious imagery approach complementary Christian subjects: Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘dramatic tableaux’ The Last Supper and John Adams’s stageable oratorio El Nino. My argument is, in essence, that in these treatments of `old beliefs’ both composers succeed in revitalising long-established ideas about compositional practice, thereby helping their chosen subject-matter to resonate the more memorably between the counter-poles of old and new.

In El Nino some biblical and mystery-play texts are employed alongside a wide range of poetry, and the story of Christ’s birth (from the annunciation to the flight into Egypt) is counterpointed by allusions to modern, South American society. In The Last Supper, Christ and the disciples are summoned up, in the year 2000, by a present-day character, whose name, ‘Ghost’, suggests that she stands for the spirit of the modern, secular age – a mediator whose lineage can be traced from the Evangelists of baroque Passions through to the narrators and ‘choruses’ of such twentiethcentury music dramas as Oedipus rex and The rape of Lucretia. In both The Last Supper and El Nino, nevertheless, the separation from, and relation of, old to new is significant, as is the avoidance of any ‘straight’ retelling of an old story. Without the Peter Sellars film that accompanied the stage premiere (and is also used on the DVD recording) El Nino is obviously more abstract, or timeless, and yet the diversity of the texts – the way the biblical extracts are contextualised, and the way the particular associations with Messiah are given a very knowing, contemporary quality (of which more below) – serve Adams’s acknowledged purpose of attempting to ‘find out’ what he was ‘sayings about his own religious beliefs, which were (are?) ‘shaky and unformed’.2 Birtwistle’s long history of relish for ancient rituals lays down a stronger background for The Last Supper than the possible growth of any particular Christian impulses, but the present-day setting of the work is underlined not simply by references in Robin Blaser’s libretto to the Holocaust and the year 2000 but by the emphasis on self-analysis in the words provided for Christ and the disciples, including Judas. This is one indication of the extent to which Blaser’s language has progressed beyond biblical formulae and pre-twentiethcentury poetics, to resonate with images found in twentieth-century poetry and philosophy.3 At the same time, however, the regular shadowing of English by Latin, and the frequent allusions to the Bible – as well as the insertion of three Latin motets as a cappella interludes accompanying the visionary tableaux (The Crucifixion, The Stations of the Cross, The Betrayal) contribute strongly to the cumulative ritual intensity of the work.

Reviving the practice of the beginning of Westem drama, the two medieval Benedictine Latin church dramas I have used arise out of a liturgical event, in this case the Eucharist, with which the work begins and ends. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. The audience or congregation may participate in the singing of the plainsong hymns, Sing my Soul and The Royal Banners, upon which the musical fabric is based, thus emphasising the ritualistic rather than the conventionally operatic nature of the work.4

These sentences form the beginning of Jonathan Harvey’s programme note for his ‘church opera in twelve scenes’, Passion and Resurrection (1981), a work whose central text isa translation […] of an anonymous 12th century Latin Passion Play from the Benedictine monastery of Montecassino’. Harvey’s opera has some degree of kinship with Britten’s Parables for Church Performance, not least that the musical basis in plainsong does not prevent the emergence of a ‘modern’ style dissonant, declamatory, even, in Harvey’s case, expressionistic. In Harvey’s opera, as in Britten’s trilogy, the narrative unfolded does not seek to dramatise the gap between the ‘ancient’ time of the stories and the contemporary moment of live performance. In Britten, the monk who presents the dramas to the audience does not at the same time attempt to distance himself from the other performers, or to interact with them as in some sense the sole representative of the modern world. Harvey’s officiating priest helps to effect the seamless interaction of sacramental celebration and dramatic enactment.

At first glance the Birtwistle/Blaser enterprise seems much closer to ‘mainstream’ opera. Yet The Last Supper could well be performed very effectively in a large church or cathedral, and while he was working on it Birtwistle said that he would like the premiere to be given in Durham Cathedral.5 Although its music is not explicitly rooted in chant or Christian hymnody, Paul Griffiths’s claim after hearing the premiere (given in the Berlin Staatsoper) that ‘one of the most remarkable features of the piece is the absence from it […] of any trace from the long centuries of Christian music’6 discounts those echoes of chant-like melismas we can observe in Birtwistle’s ‘Alleluias’ and ‘Amens’ (one instance is shown in ex. la), as well as the more pervasive reliance on narrow-intervalled cantus-like melody: there are two particularly striking examples in the closing stages, one orchestral (ex.1b), the other vocal (ex.1c). It is also possible to hear more of a background in lateMedieval or early-Renaissance polyphony in the three a cappella motets than Griffiths did at the premiere. Nevertheless, although like Harvey Birtwistle sets Christ’s biblical words ‘in remembrance of me’, an actual celebration of the Eucharist as part of the drama, along the lines of Passion and Resurrection, is hard to imagine.

IN his brief but searching review of The Last Supper Paul Griffiths attempts to plot a disjunction between the concerns of a libretto where ‘the obscurity, impenetrability and even implausibility of the divine nature are central to the action’ and music which is ‘atheological. This music leaves us asking not what we have seen but whether we have seen (as opposed – very opposed – to heard) anything at all’: and that distinction between seen and heard leads on to the argument that the orchestra is the repository of the work’s prevailing images of power and command, not the voices. Whereas, for much of the time, ‘the libretto resembles a heavy curtain, painted with images of sanctity’ the music is ‘throbbing and punching’ behind that curtain ‘with its own ideas of what gods are: […] the real action is in the pit’.

What those ideas involve is not spelt out, but it might be that the orchestral music’s forceful, at times implacable insistence has more to do with Greek or Teutonic gods who bring retribution rather than salvation. In this vein, the march-like vigour of the opera’s opening, with its peremptory, Stravinskian choral phrases, one group prerecorded, the other amplified, finds fulfilment near the end in the Ghost’s vision of the Messiah ‘coming in his armour-plated tank’ (the biblical image of Christ coming to bring not peace but a sword could be behind this).7 The Ghost, according to Griffiths, has at least one moment of unambiguous atheism (from bar 1209): ‘God isn’t./ God is never again./In this abyss, God is missing from the altar/with its victim. Seeking the eye of God,/I saw only a socket/huge, black, and bottomless’. Yet this could represent the Ghost’s embodiment of the disciples’ moment of doubt and fear, rather than the atheism of modern generations. Shortly afterwards (from bar 1267), the Ghost again appears to act as the disciples’ spokeswoman, introducing the foot-washing episode with a declaration of faith: ‘And now, Jesus, bless us all with the waters of life’. As the summoner, the medium through which old relates to new, the Ghost must somehow connect the experiences of actors and audience.

If, as Griffiths argues, Blaser’s libretto focuses on ‘the obscurity, impenetrability and even implausibility of the divine nature’, then the ‘action’ of the accompanying orchestral music – and there is no extended, independent instrumental writing in the work – embodies the turbulence of questions which must be asked but cannot be answered. It might even be possible to categorise the drama as another ‘quest’ opera, after the pattern of Gawain, in which Christ’s last, spoken words, after the ‘betrayal’ tableau, ‘Whom do you seek?’ (followed by the real sound of a crowing cockerel) stands for the Ghost’s modern embodiment of scepticism, uncertainty, yet openness to a continued search for answers to unanswerable questions about the meaning of life and death. This would conveniently explain the Ghost’s veering between statements of non-belief and statements of faith. If Birtwistle were a faith-seeking sceptic, or an exasperated non-believer fascinated by the apparent immortality of those ‘images of sanctity’, this music would fit those circumstances as well as its possible role in evoking Greek or Teutonic gods, as suggested above. Even so, however, the Christ of The Last Supper is undeniably a star, a charismatic hero, and it would be interesting to explore the extent, if any, to which his vocal style differs from other Birtwistle protagonists – not least the self-declared non-hero Gawain.

Any present-day dramatic treatment of a Christian story exists in an ambiguous context of conflicting ideals and realities – on the one hand, acknowledging the survival of the Christian religion, and, on the other, observing its failure to win universal acceptance and to transform human behaviour. As far as Blaser’s text is concerned, the Ghost might therefore represent the voice of the Western liberal as sceptical pessimist, acknowledging that ‘God is the being we are noC, appalled by ‘the brutality and terror of our century’, summoning up Jesus and his disciples in an effort to discover what role ‘the mysteries of God’ might have for us, and, near the end, apparently alarmed by the threat posed by a belligerent Messiah ‘coming in his tank’. But what, after the action, has been discovered? Is there a role or not? The Ghost is invited by Christ and the disciples to join them at the supper table, to learn about the value of life and love ‘where we find ourselves beyond ourselves’, as if seeking for self-fulfilment were a kind of psychological therapy that is independent of religious faith and Christian practice. But the Ghost does not remain with the disciples and leave with them. There is nothing here about following Christ, nothing about any resurrection, other than the capacity to summon up these characters in the year 2000: and the final sound image, with its spoken question, blends the cockcrow of betrayal with wistful instrumental lyricism (see ex.5 below). At the same time, the celebrations that give texture to life – the ritual, the dance, the ecstasy – these may never be more intense than when combined with the anticipated, or actual, presence of Christ.

This is where Griffiths’s attempt to separate what is seen, and heard as text, from what happens in the orchestra seems most questionable. If, as he suggests, the drama begins when ‘ghosts are reinvested with life, through music that expresses the exertion of rebirth but also the confidence’, it is possible for the vocal characterisation to draw more specific expressive and semantic nuances from ‘the continuous volcanic flux of the orchestra’. Griffiths argues that it is not Birtwistle’s way to provide ‘a Christ who, though coming from right outside the tradition of Christian music, yet sings with terrifying command’. The implication (following, presumably, the impression at the premiere) is that Christ’s vocal line fades into insignificance beside the power of an orchestra with no precise commitment to word or meaning other than that ‘volcanic’ embodiment of the life force. But this does less than justice to the way in which the solo voices – predominantly, the Ghost, Judas and Christ, but also several of the other individual disciples – engage in eloquent statement and dialogue: and because there is no substantial generic or stylistic difference between the nature of those vocal lines, the effect is of a common humanity, capable of leaving the collective power of ritual to be interpreted and reinterpreted by each and every individual observer. And the more human Christ appears, the more mysterious the superhuman role religion assigns to him becomes.

This renders the role of ritual spectacularly ambiguous. The Last Supper is strongly built around four fundamental actions – the assembling of the disciples, the building of the table, Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet, and the last supper itself. The musical design works with evolving, rhythmically fractured repetitions and refrains whose cumulative intensity – what Griffiths terms its ‘characteristic rolling clamour’ – is relieved only by the more dance-like episodes and, in the end, by the quietening necessary to allow the Ghost’s final reflections to be heard. While the individual vocal lines tend to draw on a common stock of rhetorical and motivic devices, with a lot of the close-position space-filling basic to the cantus-derived Birtwistle arioso, the polyphonic layering, in which texts in English and Latin are often superimposed, create density only to fracture it. A little later on, some of the technical consequences of these tensions will be discussed.

WHETHER or not there are even fewer echoes from ‘the long centuries of Christian music’ in El Nino than in The Last Supper, there are abundant and intended generic echoes, arising from Adams’s desire to write ‘a work about birth’ and also ‘to write a Messiah’. Michael Steinberg has said that ‘El Nino is deeply Handelian in two senses: in the simplicity and directness with which the words convey their message of belief, and in the joy the composer takes in setting English words to music’: and Steinberg also notes that, ‘taking a cue from Handel’s Messiah, Adams does not lock his three soloists into specific roles’.8 But Steinberg is less forthcoming on differences. Messiah, after all, is less a work about ‘the inexaustible miracle of birth’ than about the full Christian ‘package’ of the redeeming majesty of the ‘triune’ God, and the revelations of the relation between God in heaven and God made man. The nativity portrayed in Messiah is very much a means to an end. But in Adams’s ‘contemplation and celebration of birth’ the nativity remains at the centre throughout, as it does in LEn ance du Christ.

This Jesus is to be loved for his innocence and purity, not worshipped in awe for his Divine power, and although Adams’s contexts and commentaries do not erase all sense of suffering and death, the association between the massacre of the innocents and later social injustices (mainly in the setting of Rosario Castellano’s poem ‘Memorandum on Tlatelolco’, which links the last battle between the Aztecs and the conquistadors in 1521 with the Mexican riots of October 1968) is set aside by the reinforced vision of the infant Jesus, miraculously mature – ‘do not consider me a child; I have always been a perfect man and am so now’ – and able to make water flow from a dry palm tree. These picturesque, whimsical, even primitive images from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew ‘exhibit[s] delightfully sharp human perception’, and also, as Steinberg observes, reinforce the feminist perspective of the textual materials: but they signal a retreat from the grandly alarming, exalted vision of a redeeming Messiah in Handelian mode. There is no trumpet sounding the raising of the dead, no Day of Judgement. As a honest sceptic, if not an instinctive agnostic, who envies those with strong religious beliefs, Adams leaves visions of Resurrection and Eternal Life to others: and Robert Stein’s objection to Sellars’s accompanying movie, that ‘you end up making the extraordinary ordinary, rather than the other way around’9 could be precisely what was intended.

El Nino begins with an earthy account of the annunciation, in a style which has enough of the brash commercialism of Jesus Christ Superstar to make some listeners nervously anticipate a more protracted presentation of the pop idiom of the ‘songplay’ I was looking at the ceiling, and then I saw the sky (1995). The technical prowess, and longer-range thinking, of a ‘serious’ composer soon become apparent, however. Not only is there the generative potential of rhythmic displacements and shifts of accent, but the move away from tonal centredness and consonance in the first movement’s final stages adumbrates the motion between the celebration of joy (heaven on earth) and the depiction of violence (hell on earth) which is the work’s main dramatic feature.

Nevertheless, the move from medieval English to twentieth-century Spanish texts will seem merely politically correct unless the music adjusts its range. For Robert Stein, reviewing the first performance, Adams’s setting of Castellanos’s ‘La anunciacion’ is ‘less successful. It is a poem of rich imagery, troubled but rather prolix, and Adams draws attention to each of its 400 words by omitting the musical thoughtfulness that has earned him the status of the world’s most frequently performed living composer’.

This seems a little severe, for although the text is indeed ‘rather prolix’, Adams’s setting thoughtfully follows its basic tripartite structure, each of the three sections (lasting nine-and-a-half minutes in total) tracing an intensifying curve of faster speeds, widening registers and bolder shapes in the vocal line, supported by denser accompanimental harmonies. At the same time, Stein is right to view the work’s best moments as those which are ‘drawn precisely from the strategy of distilling complex ideas that is at the heart of The Death of Klinghoffer as well as Nixon’, and to praise ‘The Christmas star’, the movement which ends Part 1. Here, ‘distilling complex ideas’ does not imply the steady-state exuberance of a ‘pure’ minimalism, but an intensifying superimposition (enhanced, of course, when stage action and silent film also contribute).

This seven-minute movement contains the most purely ecstatic music in the whole of El Nino. Steinberg claims that the poem ‘The Christmas star’ by the Chilean Gabriela Mistral (set in English translation) evokes the mixed ecstasy and pain of religious revelation’. There is certainly a striking shift here from the emphasis on the human pain and pleasure of childbirth which has governed the work to this point. On the face of it `The Christmas star’ is a surreal account of the special susceptibility of the innocent young to intense experience, and – by extension – of the total transformation (a purgation by fire) which such experience can visit on all humanity. The images which appear to determine the music, at least in the early stages, are those of running and flying. An F# major mode is set out in a layered contrapuntal texture, piccolo and violins marking the fast crotchet beat (156) while glockenspiel, celesta and sampler cut across this with triplet rhythms and a few dissonant pitches (ex.2). Even when the girl ‘falls headlong’ there is no sudden descent to the bass, but a simple enharmonic shift (F#/G6) and a change of basic harmony to Ab7 with strongly dissonant Des – the eventual tonic an alien presence here – all the time with elaboration of the accompanying polyphonic layers embodying transition and intensification.

The second phase of the 241-bar movement begins at bar 67. Here the mode has shed all its accidentals except for B6, and the texture has briefly thinned down. Triplet counterings of the insistent duples have disappeared, and the main agent of counterpuntal layering is vocal, since a second text is introduced. Hildegard of Bingen’s ‘O quam preciosa’ is an extraordinary hymn to the magic of the Virgin birth, likening the birth of Christ to a dawn which offers access to paradise. Adams’s choral setting, initially in octaves, with its transposed Dorian mode on G, starts close to Hildegard (ex.3) and evolves into a kind of fantasia on the original responsory. Set against the continuation of Mistra’s English, and the diverse ostinato patterns in five distinct layers (strings, harp, piano, metal percussion, woodwind), the shimmering texture very gradually intensifies, first with greater rhythmic diversity (from semiquaver patterns to crotchet triplets). The soprano and mezzo soloists abandon Mistral for a while to join with the chorus in increasingly high-reaching lyric lines to Hildegard’s text: and then, at bar 153, a strong bass D, doubling octaves below the middle D which was introduced in violas, then soft trombones (from bar 136), roots the harmony securely for the first time.

In the third and final phase of the movement this bass D is ‘composed out’ by way of two largescale Plagal cadences – another ‘archaic’ device that underpins the move to a more complex textural layering, as the last lines of the Mistral poem appear against those of Hildegard’s responsory in the voices, and the full orchestral ensemble is at its most stratifed, ranging from semiquaver oscillations to broadly flowing lines, some doubling the voices, most independent. In this way Adams matches the textual conjunction: ‘the entire earth is burning’ (Mistral), while the birth of Christ has ‘opened paradise’ (Hildegard). As will also be the case at the end of Part 2, however, Adams gradually shades the texture down so that the final whispers of ‘paradisum’, fading against the sustained D bass and the remaining fragments of ostinato, can be heard as a vision that grows more elusive rather than more secure. The distillation dissolves, the fire dies down, the last song-like oboe phrase unresolved on C#.

After the miracle, and radiant promise, of Christ’s birth in Part 1, Part 2 of El Nino culminates with a more down-to-earth miracle, involving the live-saving fertility of the unpolluted natural world. While the episodes depicting the massacre of the innocents might bring with them associations with the violence of the crucifixion for some listeners, it is hard to see the final stages as anything other than an affirmation of the paradisal innocence which belief in the virgin birth requires. The text does not superimpose modern English and medieval Latin, but juxtaposes the ancient Gospel of pseudo-Matthew with modern Spanish. In the first part, a pseudo-Matthew narrative is initially set in relatively plain recitative style. But after the infant Jesus has instructed the palm tree to ‘Bend down, tree, and refresh my mother with your fruit’, a more flowing texture emerges, with falling ostinato figures in wind and percussion counterpointing ascending arpeggiations, tremolando, in the strings. This musical portrayal of flowing water turns towards the genre of the berceuse as the movement’s second text, Rosario Castellanos’s poem ‘Una palmera’, is introduced (for preference) by a children’s choir. This apostrophises the palm tree as the source of nourishment, and something to be worshipped possibly a symbol for the Mother of God herself, but in any case further evidence of the earth ‘coming to the aid of the child’. The final passage from the psudo-Matthew narrative is superimposed on the sung poem as a speech-song line for the solo baritone, and it is this passage which brings back the image of paradise, referring to Jesus’s words about the trees ‘which are in my Father’s paradise’. Pseudo-Matthew and Castellanos converge most directly with the image of ‘fountains of water’ beginning ‘to pour out through the roots’ (Matthew), and of the ‘cup into which the skies/pour one by one’ (Castellanos). But Adams does not simply provide an accumulation of ‘pouring’ shapes in the music which gradually fade away. A sustained, dissonant chord is assembled in brass and divided violins against the flowing lines, and crescendos to a treble forte cut off as the guitars and voices begin their final stanza (ex.4). Does this dissonance invoke the ‘dark land of men’ of the Castellanos poem? Does it shadow the innocents’ massacre (by Herod, by Mexican police) and foreshadow the death of Christ? Its musical effect is to make the gentle ending all the more poignant, of course. Innocence is there to be lost – even if you believe in miracles.

HOW you hear the balance of moods in El Nino, and whether you feel the ending heals and resolves the earlier tensions or simply sets them to one side, will naturally determine the extent to which you judge it an essentially ‘feel-good’ work. What feelings emerge at the end of The Last Supper? Adams’s closing image seems to involve the capacity of nature and religion to nourish body and soul. But, as suggested earlier, Robin Blaser’s text for Birtwistle is, with its metaphysical pretensions, a good deal more ambivalent than the combination of Castellanos and pseudo-Matthew, or of Gabriela Mistral and Hildegard of Bingen.

Birtwistle determines that the opera’s final stages begin (around bar 1786) after Christ’s climactic declaration (from bar 1760): ‘I am the good shepherd/I am./You invited me/Whether you believed in me or not,/I was there./I’m inside you./I talked of sheep and lambs/of fishing, of mustard seeds/That was before we entered the city to seek justice/a human skill like love’. The mixture of past and present tenses here throws down a challenge which the remainder of the text intensifies. Musically, the next, extended subsection is built around the brooding, mainly narrowstepped cantus in violas, (later with cellos and horns), shown in Ex.1b, with sonorous chords above and below which settle on a sustained C in the bass. It begins with a solemn representation of the sharing of bread and wine between Christ and the disciples (who echo Christ’s – English words in Latin). But just as this enactment looks set to continue as if in ‘historical’ reconstruction, with Peter displaying agitation at the mention of a betrayer, Christ turns to the Ghost: ‘Ghost, dear heart, I’ve [we’ve] discovered your name. Come, join us here at the table’. Is the Ghost, the representative of modern humanity, thereby identified as a betrayer? As already noted, the later, visionary tableau of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the sound of the cockcrow displacing other birdsong at the very end, might appear contrived to leave the questions of what betrayal is, who is betrayed, and who does the betraying, as open as the parallel questions concerning who is seeking whom, and what is being sought. Blaser’s text is an exegete’s paradise, or nightmare, simply because both theological and dramatic certainties are so difficult to distill from it.

Christ’s final sung words (from bar 1891: see ex.1c) are the most enigmatic of all: ‘Let us welcome life/the longest lasting rose./Dear Ghost, we part with this./[to the disciples] Come, let us walk among the olive trees in the garden/and talk of the joy she kept./[to Ghost, and audience] Your heart is not yet totally yours’. Slightly earher, the Ghost has referred to ‘the love that never completes and departs’ as ‘the joy I keep’: then, ‘clothed in a rose I expect/this is the joy I kept’. In this context, Christ’s final point seems to refer to the incomplete, unfulfilled nature of humanity (capable of love but not utterly transformed by it) and to assure humanity, through the Ghost, that there are things ‘beyond’ it, things ‘not our own’. The final words of the opera, given to the Ghost, and appearing as a short coda addressed to the audience, after the ‘betrayal in the garden’ vision, are as follows: ‘Here we are/you and I/sharing our lives. Death is not our own/and love, sweet love/ where we find ourselves beyond ourselves,is not our own’. Perhaps this speaks both of the human ability to aspire – through religious conviction to the visionary prospect of eternal life, and also, at the same time, of the stoic capacity of nonbelieving humanity to accept – with regret – the absence of immortality, and to acknowledge, if not succumb to, the appeal of religion, if the fact that neither love nor death are ours to determine is accepted (humanism being a ‘shadow’ religion where love and death are concerned). Nevertheless, Christ (‘the Messiah coming in his tank’) can be regarded as a threat to stoic, liberal humanism, for little remains of the Christian vision if it is seen merely as confirming the knowledge that most humans tend to aspire in ways which leaves them sensing a degree of unfulfilment – even if they also accept this as inherent in the human condition.

While this verbal action is being played out, Birtwistle’s music moves to an ending which not only echoes old devices, but does so in ways comparable to the endings of both parts of El Nino. The old devices are cadences, with a dissonant version of a perfect cadence in D occurring as Christ exits (bar 1909), and a dissonant version of a Plagal cadence in D as the ghost exits (bars 1927-28). It would be possible to introduce a narrative at this point which considered the evidence for D as a focal pitch-centre, intermittently but decisively present throughout The Last Supper, from the first unambiguous cadence in bar 6, as part of an ‘old/new’ dialectic between centred and non-centred music. But the last three bars of instrumental music in themselves neatly illustrate the balance Birtwistle has established between centres and their shadows – D with both D6 and EL, and the final horn A6 echoing the starting point of that recurrent ascending figure, spanning A6 to D (ex.5). These three bars conclude the Ghost’s fifteen-bar coda, and however conclusive the musical content, there seems to be no more ‘resonant’ generic association here – at least if the comparison is with El Nino’s final cradle song. Yet the musical character of The Last Supper’s ending is a distillation of the opera’s predominant genre, what we might term the ‘processional’ arioso, which is open-ended enough to transmute into antiphonal motet-like vocal/choral ensembles (the remnants of that ‘background’ Mass which Birtwistle once considered providing for the work) or into more dance-like or otherwise active strophe and refrain forms. It is the ghost of the strophe/refrain dialogue that survives into the coda from bar 1914, with instrumental layers that emphasise repetition and evolution respectively, and a vocal line that unfolds, without obvious motivic processes, using a scheme of structurally, and therefore expressively significant spanning tones – centres with their shadows – for its successive phrases: Dflat/Aflat: Dflat/Aflat: F/Aflat: Eflat/Dflat: A/A.

Birtwistle’s use of ostinato in this coda is another example of technical common ground with Adams, and of the kind of shared belief in the continued viability of long-established technical procedures, which reaches over the obvious and extreme stylistic differences – not rendering those differences insignificant, of course. El Nino and The Last Supper offer very different perspectives on the genres of hymn, or canticle, or motet: and Adams’s melodic manner, at least when he is depicting violence and terror, is not as different from Birtwistle’s as might initially be assumed. I would not wish to end with singing a song of ultimate convergence, however. Of the two, it must be Adams who comes closest to matching Grisey’s ‘music for the dawn of a humanity finally disencumbered of the nightmare’ – or is it for a humanity able to pretend that the nightmare does not exist? Birtwistle, grappling with the semantic complexities of Blaser’s Ghost, creates no sense of a new beginning, rather the possibility of continuing with the old doubts in a spirit of stoic humanism.

IT DOES NOT take much thought about the nature of the interaction between centredness and its opposite in Birtwistle’s music to render redundant simplistic assertions about associations between the avant-garde and ‘an expression of a fundamentally nihilistic perspective that denies the notions of progress and of goalorientation, and hence of metaphysical goodness and of meaning in general’.10 Birtwistle’s music may be, by traditional standards, ‘unremittingly dissonant and unmelodic’. But that does not make it ‘the fruit of a metaphysic that denies the goodness of any actual existent’, and Michael Fuller has already indicated the flaws in Brian Etter’s ‘pessimistic view of the ability of works of the twentieth-century avant-garde to speak to a wide audience’, a view which is ‘unjustified, given such counter examples as Berg’s Violin Concerto or Wozzeck’. The differences between the work of Adams and Birtwistle on the one hand, Harvey and Tavener on the other, have much to do with the differences between sceptics and adepts. The sceptics’ message seems to be that we can learn from the Christian story, and from its regular retelling: but what we believe about life and death is another matter. If, in El Nino, Adams turns aside from the shadow of the void beyond human experience, Birtwistle’s The Last Supper – not nihilistically, but realistically – brings that shadow to centre-stage.

The extracts from The Last Supper are Copyright 2000 by Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd, and those from El Nino are Copyright 2000 by Hendon Music, Inc. A Boosey fr Hawkes Company. Copyright for all countries. All rights reserved. They are reproduced by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd.


1. See the notes with the Kairos recording 0012252KAI (2001); also the programme for the London Sinfonietta Concert, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 3 February 1999.

2. See the discussion by Michael Steinberg in the booklet with the Nonesuch CD recording, 7559-79634-2 (2001)

3. In the published libretto of The Last Supper (Boosey dt Hawkes, 2000) Robin Blaser acknowledges ‘his special indebtedness to Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Inoperative Community [1986] and to Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community [1990]’. For commentary on the multivalent character of Blaser’s libretto, see Patrick Wright: ‘Facing up to the subterranean stream’, in Glyndebourne Festival Programme Book (2000), pp. 124-28. According to Wright, there are fragmentary citations from or allusions to a range of writers, including Gerard de Nerval, George Steiner, Avital Ronell and Hannah Arendt,

who are not mentioned by Blaser in his note with the libretto. The most extensive quotations I have identified are from the metaphysical poets: Richard Crashaw’s ‘On the bleeding wounds of our crucified Lord’ (1646), assigned to Judas, and Thomas Traherne’s ‘Thanksgiving for the Body’ (1699), assigned to Christ.

4. See Harvey’s programme note in the vocal score of Passion and Resurrection (Faber Music, 1998).

5. See Michael Hall: Harrison Birtwistle in recent years (London 1998), p.150.

6. See Tempo no.213 (July 2000), pp.41-42.

7. These lines are quoted from AM Klein’s poem `Ballad of the days of the Messiah’ (1941). It may also be relevant – and representative of the densely allusive nature of Blaser’s text that the tanks of Tiananmen Square feature in the final section of Giorgio Agamben’s The coming community (University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p.86).

8. CD notes, see note 2 above.

9. Tempo no.216 (April 2001), pp.37-38.

10. See Michael Fuller’s review of Brian K. Etter’s From classicism to modernism: western musical culture and the metaphysics of order, in The Musical Times (Summer 2002), pp.79-80.

Arnold Whittall’s new book, Exploring twentiethcentury music, will be published by Cambridge University Press in Spring 2003.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Winter 2002

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