Every holiday season, New York concertgoers can take their pick of Messiahs, Christmas Oratorios, and other Baroque yuletide staples. Though perennial favorites, this music is also over 250 years old, written for European audiences accustomed to mixing music and their Christian faith.
While there are some fine American carols and truly classic novelty Christmas songs, the US has no homegrown oratorio tradition to draw on during the holidays. Two American composers have started to change this with poignant reworkings of the musical form that adapt Christian themes to address the cultural attitudes of the last decade.
For millions of people around the world, the arrival of the year 2000 marked the beginning of a wondrous new time defined by both the promise of redemption and the possibility of catastrophe. When John Adams accepted the commission from the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris to write a work for the new millennium, he turned to the Christmas story to capture this sense of awe in the face of a fresh start, and wrote El Niño.
Instead of relying on a single New Testament text, Adams and longtime collaborator Peter Sellars culled together a bilingual libretto for El Niño from a host of sources, including the Bible and the apocryphal Pseudo-Matthew, as well as Spanish-language poetry from celebrated Latin American poet Rosario Castellanos and 17th-century nun Sor Juana In_s de la Cruz.
This combination of sacred and secular voices, crossing temporal and political borders, speaks of a particular hope for the millenial future that marginal voices will be heard more prominently, that dualities once thought to be inviolable are reconciled.
Adams's setting of Castellanos's "La anunciati‹n": a new mother's frank, sensual expression of the contradictory emotions she feels as she holds her newborn: puts the female experience of childbirth front and center, bringing a perspective to the Christmas story that is often overlooked.
"As beautiful as the telling is in the New Testament, it is nevertheless an imagined secondhand experience, written by men," says Adams. "But our texts have at their core poetry by women, and the intensity of their imagery and feeling imparts a special authenticity to the work."
Adams sets the Latin American poetry in El Niê±o in its original Spanish, an acknowledgment of what the composer, who lives in San Francisco, has called the "multicultural mix, so richly evocative of our present-day life in California." In this sense, El Niê±o is a prototype for a new American art form that gives the language and culture of a burgeoning Hispanic population a prominent role. (At the world and US premieres, Adams and Sellars underscored this theme with a silent film that set the Christmas story in gritty Los Angeles, with Mary and Joseph as a young Hispanic couple pursued by the police.)
While El Niê±o is a large-scale work that lasts almost two hours, David Lang's 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner The Little Match Girl Passion is a pocket oratorio for four singers: a 30-minute meditation on the parallels between Christ's crucifixion and the death of the titular heroine in Hans Christian Andersen's grim 19th-century fairy tale.
"What has always interested me," says Lang, "is that Andersen tells his story as a kind of parable, drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus."
Though not strictly a Christmas story, the setting of "The Little Match Girl" outside a fancy restaurant on a cold New Year's Eve places it squarely within the holiday season. Lang sets portions of Andersen's short story, as well as texts from Bach's St. Matthew Passion, using the crucifixion to put the focus on the bravery of the lonely girl who slowly dies alone in the streets. As Lang puts it, "the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been subsituted for Jesus's, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane."
The Little Match Girl Passion, a Carnegie Hall commission that received its world premiere two seasons ago, was not written for any particular occasion, as El Niê±o was, but it did make its premiere at an auspicious time in American history. As investment bankers were recording record profits and bonuses, the piece was a poignant reminder that there were people left out; today, in the wake of the bubble-burst, the piece illuminates the suffering of those turned out of their homes and jobs.
Adams and Lang aren't the only two composers working today who have used the mold of classic oratorios from days gone by. What sets El Niê±o and The Little Match Girl Passion apart is the way that the composers adapt tradition to make it relevant to contemporary audiences at home in the US and abroad, using enduring sacred themes to reflect on the time and place in which we live.
John Adams's El Niê±o is being performed by the Orchestra of St. Luke's on Sunday, Dec. 13, under the direction of the composer.
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