Music: The Search for a Larger Harmony

The central fact of history is the Nativity. It poses the single most important question: Who is Christ? Few ages would seem further removed from a concern over the answer than our own. However, America’s most popular composer, John Adams (b. 1947), has now written an opera/oratorio on the subject, titled El Nino or, as it was called at its Paris premiere, La Nativite. Adams has written several highly successful operas based on contemporary events—Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer—as well as many orchestral and vocal scores, but nothing in his background would lead one to expect that he would turn to this subject matter. That he has is in and of itself a significant cultural barometer.

Since my first exposure to his music, I have been intrigued by Adams because he is a member of a generation of composers who were indoctrinated in Schoenberg’s ideology of systematized atonality and then found their way out of it. His way was at first minimalist, but he soon turned to richer forms of expression.

Adams reported that he had “learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.” His recovery involved a shock of some kind: “When you make a dogmatic decision like that early in your life, it takes some kind of powerful experience to undo it.” Adams ultimately rejected his college lessons on Nietzsche’s “death of God” and the loss of tonality because he “found that tonality was not just a stylistic phenomenon that came and went, but that it is really a natural acoustic phenomenon!’

In a total repudiation of Schoenberg, Adams went on to write a stunning symphony, titled Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony), that powerfully reconnects with the great Western musical tradition. In this work, he wrote, “There is a sense of using key as a structural and psychological tool in building my work.” Even more importantly, Adams explained, “The other shade of meaning in the title has to do with harmony in the larger sense, in the sense of spiritual and psychological harmony.”

Adams describes the symphony explicitly in terms of spiritual health and sickness. He explained that “the entire [second] movement is a musical scenario about impotence and spiritual sickness…. It has to do with an existence without grace. And then in the third movement, grace appears for no reason at all… That’s the way grace is, the unmerited bestowal of blessing on man. The whole piece is a kind of allegory about that quest for grace.” It is clear that to Adams the recovery of tonality and key structure is as closely related to spiritual recovery as its loss was related to spiritual loss.

Because of the prominent role he has played in the recovery of contemporary music, I have always been curious about the spiritual resources Adams was drawing on in his life and work. Is it Christianity or some kind of New Age spirituality? El Nino gives only a partial answer.

Because of his “somewhat checkered religious background,” Adams said he was surprised that he wanted to write a Messiah. This impulse seems to have come not simply from a love of Handel but from his own amazement at the miracle of birth as he experienced it when his daughter was born in 1984: “There were four people in the room, and then there were five.” This metaphysical jolt has born fruit in El Nino: “Telling the story of birth, not necessarily the birth of Jesus, but just the archetypical experience of a woman giving birth—not necessarily the birth of Jesus, but just the archetypical experience of a woman giving birth through the words of women—became the generating idea behind El Nino.” Adams’s first title for the work was How Could This Happen? from a 16th-century German Advent antiphon.

There was another idea as well. “I envy people with strong religious beliefs. Mine is shaky and unformed. I don’t know what I’m saying, and one reason for writing El Nino was to find out,” Adams said. With the help of director Peter Sellars, Adams selected texts from a variety of sources, one-third of them in Spanish or Latin. He uses the Bible, the Apocrypha, and the works of Hildegard von Bingen; Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th-century Mexican mystic; and several poets. Adams’s musical resources include a soprano, mezzo-soprano, baritone, chorus, and orchestra.

Adams begins his exploration in a surprisingly conventional way, using a beautiful anonymous medieval English poem, “I Sing of a Maiden,” and then a section from a Wakefield mystery play on the Annunciation. He then intersperses the first of several startling poems from the 20th-century Latin American poetess Rosario Castellanos, this one titled “The Annunciation.” Her poems are electrifying and bold explorations of what Mary might have felt as she anticipated and then experienced Christ’s birth. (If for no other reason, I would be grateful to this work for introducing me to her poetry.) The libretto then turns to the Gospel of Luke for the Visitation and the Magnificat. This first part of the oratorio is very effective and quite moving, especially in its DVD version, where one can see the tears in soprano Dawn Upshaw’s eyes during the Annunciation.

Unfortunately, three of the next four numbers are drawn from the Gnostic gospels. In literary and doctrinal terms, they stick out like sore thumbs, serving at least to confirm one’s faith in the Holy Spirit’s critical powers. Joseph, who speaks not a word in the gospels, is quite voluble here, complaining bitterly about Mary’s pregnancy. Mary is also loquacious. Extensive use of Pseudo-Matthew is made in the second part of El Nino, confusing the fabulous with the miraculous in the story of Christ’s life. The texts are absurd. Why did Adams and Sellars feel compelled to use them? Perhaps for their poetic charm. However, it reveals that they approach gospel and pseudo-gospel alike at the level of enriching myth, a la Joseph Campbell.

What is the larger truth to which these myths point? In an interview on the DVD, Sellars says, “When you speak of these spiritual subjects, they can never be reduced. More is happening than you can possibly take in because the story is immense and happening on multiple levels always.” So far, so good. But then he opines, “There is no one point of view about Mary. It’s the opposite. The nature of truth is not that it belongs to this person or that person. The truth hovers in the middle.’

Clearly, neither Sellars nor Adams accepts Christian revelation on its own terms. They use it to try to sanctify every woman’s motherhood with Mary’s motherhood. In the process, they lose the source of that sanctification. Mary’s motherhood is demoted because it is no longer distinct. As the jacket cover to the DVD says, the story of Jesus is told “through the image of modern-day Marys.” (This perspective is particularly clear in the film Sellars made to accompany the oratorio, as seen on the DVD.)

Yet not all is lost. Despite the confusion, a sense of the sacred permeates El Nino, if only because Adams has such a profound appreciation for the mystery at the foundation of existence. This grasp of mystery lends great beauty, charm, and power to various parts of this work. Especially captivating are the vocal settings of the Spanish poems and Hildegard von Bingen’s O Quam Preciosa. The portrayal of the three kings and the presentation of the gifts is enchanting.

The Nonesuch CD and Arthaus Musik DVD releases of El Nino share the same marvelous soloists, countertenors, chorus, and Deutsches Symphonie Orchestra Berlin, under Kent Nagano. If this piece fails to convince, it is not because of the performance. Soprano Upshaw, mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and baritone Willard White are superb. The DVD is both a richer and more confusing experience, largely because of Sellars’s film, which portrays Mary as a young Latino woman, complete with face jewelry, driving around southern California with her boyfriend. However, his choreography for the soloists and chorus on stage is quite compelling.

“The most important thing is the humanity of the message, the depth of the emotional experience,” Adams declares in the El Nino DVD interview, “and perhaps that can work its way into a moral change on the part of the listener. But I don’t try to convert my audience:’ Ultimately, El Nino is not a contemporary affirmation of faith but an affirmation of contemporary faith.

How Could This Happen? Adams asked in his original title. He fails to answer this question. But, of course, no one could. The real question is: What happened? Who is Christ? Despite his search, it seems clear that Adams still does not quite know what he believes about all this. He does, though, capture and convey a genuine astonishment at creation and the astounding mystery of birth. The beauties in this work show Adams to be a composer with a major gift who is reaching with his heart for something not yet within his grasp. Who can predict what is next for this man who knows that grace can appear “for no reason at all”?


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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