Music: Musical Metempsychosis

The big classical music news from this year’s Grammy Awards was the three-prize sweep by John Adams’s composition On the Transmigration of Souls, written to commemorate the victims of 9/11. Transmigration, performed by New York Choral Artists, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and the New York Philharmonic, under Lorin Maazel, picked up awards for Classical Album (Nonesuch 798162), Orchestral Performance, and Classical Contemporary Composition. It also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

I always look forward to listening to a new Adams work. I am on his side. His Harmonielebre, also recorded on the Nonesuch label, was a breakthrough composition in the early 1980s that heroically declared the recovery of tonality. Adams did a great deal to sweep aside the sterile academicism of American serialism in such works as The Wound-Dresser. He had a near-miss in his recent oratorio, El Nino, which set a Christmas narrative. I always wish for Adams to succeed because I sense that he is trying to move in the right direction.

To memorialize 9/11 is a tough assignment for any composer. Adams’s title, Transmigration, reminded me of a line from Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus in which Faustus, faced with impending damnation, laments, “Ah, metempsychosis, were that true, this soul should fly from me and I be changed into some brutish beast.” Faustus preferred reincarnation as an escape from Mephistopheles and judgment. As Rev. James Schall has said, reincarnation is a this-worldly substitute for resurrection. What, I wondered, could the concept of transmigration bring to the awful events of 9/11? Unfortunately, despite all the praise and prizes, the answer is not enough.

I cringe to call Adams’s work politically correct because I have no doubt of his sincerity. It is the critics whom I doubt. What could they have been thinking to elevate this work to the status it now enjoys? My first guess is that it is because it is “inclusive.” All kinds of people died on 9/11, from all kinds of religions, and perhaps some from none. There is nothing in Transmigration that could possibly offend any of them doctrinally. That is its problem.

Transmigration opens with the rustle of tape-recorded street sounds from New York City. Then, a boy deadpans the word “missing” some 30 times, as other voices begin a litany of the dead, repeating names and brief descriptions. A children’s choir sings in the upper registers in the background; then adults join in, singing, “We miss you; we all love you” over and over, texts taken from missing-persons signs posted at Ground Zero. A trumpet intones Charles Ives’s tune from the Unanswered Question. Spoken phrases, like fragments floating in the debris of sounds, interlace each other, creating a kind of counterpoint with the instruments and choir. Adams weaves an interesting tapestry that is undeniably touching.

Two-thirds of the way through its 25-minute duration, the music builds to a huge climax with enormous sea swells of Sibelian bass strings and brass, under scurrying strings in the upper registers, that erupts into choral shouts of “light” and “love.” This is followed by a long decrescendo during which the recitation of names and phrases resumes. Then, more street sounds.

When I first listened to the CD of Transmigration, I was moved. I work in the Pentagon, not far from one site of 9/11’s destruction. At the very point where the plane slammed into the building and took 184 lives, there is now a chapel in which Mass is said every weekday. I remember the column of smoke as I drove near that morning, and phone calls to friends near the Twin Towers in New York. To hear some of the names recited, to listen to fragments of cell phone conversations and to lines from the missing posters near the World Trade Center, is quite enough to bring it back and make your heart ache for the families that grieved then and are still grieving now. Yet, the second time I listened, I felt nothing. The shock had worn off and, musically, it was not interesting enough to sustain repeated listening.

In Transmigration, one is left simply with the sadness of the thing— the sense of loss, and the wish for there to be more, without there really being a way for there to be more. Adams said that “transmigration means the movement from one place to another or the transition from one state of being to another.” Yes, they have changed. They are dead. They are gone. But where? And what for? Metempsychosis doesn’t cut it. I would rather have these questions answered within a religious tradition that I do not share than left to Ives’s Unanswered Question because, I suspect, those answers in alien faiths will come far closer to meeting human needs than exclamations of “light” and “love.”

One can hear Adams’s spirit straining against the slavery of death, wishing to break its bonds through the exercise of memory and love. But wishing does not make it so. Yearning may, however, at least point you in the right direction, open you to the possibility of the transcendent. And the transcendent has a text far more compelling than Adams’s libretto.

That text is the Requiem. Death by terrorism reminds us of the terror of death. Resurrection reminds us of the victory over death. I recently overheard one mother telling another how to tell her very young children that their grandfather was dying. “Don’t talk about death without talking about heaven,” she counseled. I want to hear that in music.

I just have. The Hyperion label sent me a CD release of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna for chorus and chamber orchestra, performed by the 30-voice Polyphony, with the Britten Sinfonia, under Stephen Layton (CDA 67449). The piece begins and ends with the open and close of the Requiem Mass. The three inner movements are drawn from the Te Deum, O Nata Lux, and Veni, Sancte Spiritus. Here are light and love of a different sort. I have seldom heard music so animated by faith, so bathed in luminosity, or so full of hope that we will rise in Christ.

When he wrote Lux in 1997, Lauridsen was facing his mother’s impending death. When I phoned Lauridsen, he told me, “I purposely chose those texts that had the recurring symbol of light.” Lux Aeterna is not a liturgical work, strictly speaking, but it is sacred in sound because beauty of this sort is sacramental. In style, Lauridsen was inspired by Renaissance master Josquin des Pres. He not only draws upon Renaissance forms, he remains true to them, albeit with some modern harmonies. “I did try to create a very beautiful piece,” he said. “We try to get to that point beyond words.” He has done so in a work whose serenity and tenderness bring to mind the spirit of Maurice Durufle’s equally consoling Requiem.

Lux Aeterna, though written before 9/1 1, has its own relationship to it. On that day in Los Angeles, radio station KUSC responded by playing Lux Aeterna over and over again. In the fall of 2003, a choir from Maine visited Ground Zero in New York and sang Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium at the site.

Also on this CD is one of the most beautiful Ave Maria’s ever written. I have seldom encountered anything so suffused with love for Mary. When I asked Lauridsen, a Protestant, about this, he responded, “I don’t have to belong to the Catholic Church to be in love with Mary.” There is another recording of this and the Lux Aeterna on the RCM label (19705), with the 60-voice Los Angeles Master Chorale, under Paul Salamunovich. The acoustic is too reverberant to hear all the details in the Ave Maria, but the Lux is performed with a special ardor.

Lauridsen reminds me of Igor Stravinsky’s remark that “the stained- glass artist of Chartres had few colors, and the stained-glass artists of today have hundreds of colors, but no Chartres. Not enlarged resources then, but men and what they believe.” Of course you need skill as a composer. You need to master your craft, but what you believe is decisive. Who would imagine that in the Los Angeles of today, someone would have the faith to paint in the colors of Chartres?

I will take resurrection over reincarnation both doctrinally and musically. You may weep when you listen to Lauridsen, but they will be tears of joy.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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