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Musica Celestis

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Aaron Jay Kernis
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: John Axelrod, conductor / Samuel Pisar, narrator & Kelley Nassief, soprano, Bernstein's Symphony No. 3 "Kaddish" Jun. 2 - 4, 2011
© Thomas May

Aaron Jay Kernis first came to attention with his orchestral music in 1983, when the New York Philharmonic first played Dream of the Morning Sky. In 1998 he won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his String Quartet No. 2 (subtitled musica instrumentalis), a work inspired by Renaissance and Baroque dance music. Kernis became the youngest composer to win the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 2002 for Colored Field, a concerto in which he grapples with the experience of a visit to the Nazi death camps. Musica Celestis (“Heavenly Music") is probably the composer's most frequently performed work and belongs, in a sense, to the tradition of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. Like the Barber Adagio, it originated as part of a string quartet: Kernis transformed the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1 from 1990 (also titled Musica Celestis) into an independent concert piece for string orchestra, adding a line for double bass to fill out the texture.

The medieval concept of "heavenly music," which, as Kernis describes it, "refers to the singing of the angels in heaven in praise of God without end," lies behind Musica Celestis. "I don't particularly believe in angels, " the composer adds,"but found this to be a potent image that has been reinforced by listening to a good deal of medieval music." While Kernis singles out his discovery of the music of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a broader range of influences might also be discerned. Besides the obvious precedent of Barber's Adagio (texturally and as a slow movement), there are hints of English pastoralism, the radical simplicity of late-period Beethoven (think of the Heiliger Dankgesang from the A minor String Quartet, Op. 132), and even, perhaps, the ethereal sonority of Wagner's Prelude to Lohengrin (once characterized by Thomas Mann as evoking skies of"silvery blue").

Framing Musica Celestis are spacious, slowly changing chords that seem to defy all sense of measured time. The piece unfolds as a series of variations of a simple, hymnlike melody. In contrast to the near stasis of the opening, the music quickens in a section of ascending scalar patterns, reaching a stratospheric climax about two-thirds through (even the cellos are scored at the upper extremity of their range). Through his manipulation of tempo and texture, of simple diatonicism and transient dissonance, Kernis reveals the paradox of a "heavenly music" whose changing patterns cannot negate an underlying permanence.