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Looking Back: Symphony of Meditations

This past November, the Glee Club, along with the Yale Philharmonia, the Camerata, and the Schola Cantorum, performed the East Coast premiere of School of Music professor Aaron Jay Kernis's "Symphony of Meditations." The new work was incredibly complex to learn and to perform, but after months of hard work and preparation, the performance was beautiful and the intricate, fascinating music was brought to life in front of a huge audience as the centerpiece of the 2009 National Choral Collegiate Organization's conference. Here, Michael Haycock '12 shares his own reflections on the piece and its meaning.

Aaron Jay Kernis’ Symphony of Meditations begins with an Invocation in which the soloist, preceding the chorus’ thunderous acclamation of divine almight, ponders searchingly, “What could the heart and tongue compose, or spirit’s strength within me to suit you?” The answer, unspoken, is given in its absence, and turning from suiting something to the Lord, Gabirol’s poet observes submissively, “but song soothes you, and so I’ll give praise to your being as long as your breath-in-me lives.” Even in this statement he sees that without the Lord he worships he would not have the song to offer: the words breath and spirit in Hebrew are one and the same, and it was God who breathed in Adam’s nostrils the breath of life.

But amid the towering chords of the chorus and the soaring melodies of instrumental solos throughout the piece that move the heart to contemplate the greatness of God, there are also sections of what may seem manic frenzy, or even violence, abject fear, trembling anger minimally resembling reverence. (Perhaps the spurting of spittle with each plosive and sibilant suggested that sensation in my case.) Why does Gabirol write of his “abominable acts,” being “a spider’s poison,” and all the horrendous vicissitudes and evils of a world and a man “uncut” for their Lord? Why the presence of the crazed and wrenching parts of the work?

Certainly earlier Hebrew harpists had similar motifs – the songs registered in the Biblical book of Psalms bear witness to this with utter clarity. Nevertheless, this song, according to Kernis’ arrangement of Gabirol’s words, is supposed to “soothe” the Lord of heavens and earth. How can this reminder of human cruelty and imperfection in the slightest comfort exactingly just Deity?

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of my favorite authors, and I believe he might extend an answer. In theAinulindalĂ«, a part of his Silmarillion, he relates the story of Creation of Middle-Earth (which, in his mind, is none but our own world, in forgotten past times). “There was Eru, the One,” it begins, introducing the Judeo-Christian God in nomenclature not unfamiliar, and the Ainur, who are to be understood as the angels. The most striking image of this story is not visual, however; it is strictly auditory, and Eru “spoke to [the Ainur], propounding to them themes of music,” on which they elaborate with their stunning orchestral array of voices and tonalities: “a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and the heights.” This flawless music is not left unmarred, for “it came into the heart of Melkor [Tolkien’s Satan stand-in] to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with” Eru’s theme, his music being “loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated” whilst Eru’s was “deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.” The contention of Melkor with Eru continues, but the later weaves the former’s attempts at dominance masterfully and comprehensively into the great work.

Then comes the revelation, and the Ainur are given sight, and perceive the Earth, and that the singing of each contributed to its creation. Eru addresses Melkor, and explains that

“no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.”

Melkor’s striving to destroy with cold and heat, by turning once liquid water into snow, hail, clouds, and rain, simply augments the physical beauty of the world. The omniscience and overwhelming supremacy of God, who comprehends all to a degree unknown to all, is capable of finding peace in discord, solace in dissonance, and ultimately a greater beauty in what is apparently repulsive.

Indeed, the primary intended function of reminders of one’s sin is to cause one to sink into the abysmal depths of humility before one’s Creator and acknowledge one’s “utter weakness and failing.” The grace of the Almighty and His astounding magnanimity is amplified by his longsuffering of man so helpless that he pleads to be sheltered if only by His “shadow.” Just as impractical as Stravinsky’s dismissing any bassoonist that could play the beginning notes ofThe Rite of Spring confidently, the intentionally high B in a baritone solo and the strain of that section of the work are brilliant vocal representations of soul-rending agony. The speechlessness of man before God is apparent in the last pages of the work, where after praising the Lord and His incomparability, the only words that can be expressed are “The Lord is God” and “The Lord is one” – and that in a language estranged, perhaps elevated, from the rest of the piece. The final remnants of human artistic expression meant to soothe the Lord eventually are exhausted, and the yielding last word is spoken and not sung.

The purpose of the work is to represent Man before God. It is not a self-defense, nor a whitewashed worship. The sins strike contrast with perfect righteousness. However, even in the depiction of the evil and cacophony man causes when he has “gone against [the Lord’] teaching and held [His] commandments in scorn”, God is still uplifted and praised, and – seemingly paradoxically – in his prostration man is forgiven and “cleansed with the light” of the Lord’s countenance, renewing the world and birthing something greater than mortal ever conceived and of more beauty than ever envisioned.


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I first encountered this piece when I was 16, as part of a northern Virginia choral association concert. They mailed me the score (which I still have) and gave me a few weeks to learn it before having two rehearsals and then a concert. I still remember trying to learn the music note by note (since I couldn’t sight read back then) listen to a midi file of the soprano I part on repeat. So this is how I encountered Vaughan Williams--a piano midi file. My first impression, especially once I got to “Beat! Beat! Drums!” was….what the heck is this music. I didn’t really understand the poetry, or the war, or any of the context surrounding this piece. All I knew was there was something about a solemn church and a bridegroom and bugles, and something about snorting horses in Dan…the piece was a mys…