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Composed: 1985-1988

Length: c. 108 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes, 4 oboes (3rd & 4th = English horn), 5 clarinets, 3 bass clarinets (3rd = contrabass clarinet), 2 alto saxophones, 2 tenor saxophones, baritone saxophone, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drums, bell plates, bell tree, cowbells, drum kits, glockenspiel, gongs, guiro, log drum, marimbas, metal boxes, metal chimes, rattle, slapstick, snare drum, tam-tam, temple bells, tom-toms, vibraphone), harp, celesta, 2 pianos, 2 synthesizers, 2 guitars, bass guitar, 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, bass, chorus, soprano and tenor soloists, and 2 speakers

 

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance (West Coast premiere)

 

In the preface to his classic study Music in the Renaissance, musicologist Gustav Reese lamented the lack of “polyphony in prose” to clarify and reconcile the chronological development of an idea with its simultaneous diffusion. Some sort of literary counterpoint would certainly help in dealing with the intricately interlocking musical, thematic, and symbolic elements of a monumental and non-linear work such as De Materie. While the work could be considered a non-narrative opera in four acts or a dramatic symphony in four movements, De Materie is perhaps best thought of as four musical essays exploring the relationship between matter and spirit. “I wanted to show, in four different ways, how the mind, the person, deals with tangible surroundings,” Andriessen says.

In Biblical numerology, four relates to the earth and matter, as three signifies unity and perfection; both numbers figure importantly in De Materie. In 4/4 meter throughout, Part I is the most “four,” the most earthy and physical of the sections. This is immediately apparent in one of the most striking – literally – openings in any music: 144 repeated fortissimo chords that gradually accelerate to the vocal entrances. The small choir picks up the accelerated hammering with a 17th-century Dutch text on shipbuilding (by Nicolaas Witsen). “My musical metaphor for the eruption of intellectual, and also physical, violence was shipbuilding,” Andriessen says. He also looks at nation building with text drawn from the Dutch declaration of independence from Spain, the Plakkat van Verlatingen (Act of Abjuration) of 1581.

In marked contrast to this machine-like declamation, the tenor soloist offers a lyrical interpretation of passages from Idea Physicae, a book by the precocious Dutch physicist Gorlaeus (David van Goorle) that renewed ancient Greek atomic theory. As matter is built from atoms, a ship is built bit by small bit, and a democratic nation is built person by person. The music reflects this in its intervallic and rhythmic construction.

Not surprising, perhaps, for music supporting concepts of elemental construction, Part I of De Materie is based on Bach, specifically the proportions of the E-flat Prelude from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Andriessen thinks of this prelude as a combination of a toccata (more hammering) and a ricercare (contrapuntal searching). Those 144 chords equal the number of beats in the toccata section of the prelude, and are also numerologically significant: (3 x 4)2. The ricercare section is reflected when the choir takes up the Act of Abjuration text. According to his analysis of the prelude, Bach used a variation of the ancient tune “L’homme armé,” beloved of late Medieval and Renaissance composers, so Andriessen also uses that – further altered – as counterpoint in the orchestra.

If De Materie were a symphony, Hadewijch (Part II) would be its slow movement, a rapt, expansive, linearly yearning arioso treatment of a poetic vision by the 13th-century mystic (in the original, archaic Dutch). Hadewijch was a Beguine, a woman who lived a devotional life of service and contemplation, but without formal religious vows. She was a prolific writer of poems and letters, including a volume of ecstatic visions in which spiritual union with God or Christ is expressed in very earthy, physical terms. “The seventh vision, which I have set in its entirety to music, is an account of a development from physicality to spirituality by way of a few meetings which very much resemble erotic encounters,” Andriessen says.

And if Part I is “four” music, Part II is “three”: 3/4 meter, mostly subdivided into triplets, and the harmonies are chords of three, six, and nine notes. Bach appears again, through the famous BACH motif (B-flat, A, C, B-natural), which is also a musical symbol for the cross; this is also intensely contrapuntal music.

But where Part I was built over a musical plan, Hadewijch is modeled on an actual structure. “The composition is organized to mirror the architectural plan of the cathedral of Reims in France,” Andriessen writes. “The intervals of time between the chords of the pianos, tuned percussion, and guitars, which ring through the canvas at set points, have the same proportional relationship as the distance in space between the cathedral’s pillars.”

Part III, De Stijl, would be the scherzo of this hyper-symphony. It was the first section of De Materie to be composed, for the combination of Andriessen’s Volharding and Hoketus ensembles at the 1985 Kaalslag (Demolition) festival. (The USC Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble gave the West Coast premiere of De Stijl on a Green Umbrella program in 2001, and the LA Phil New Music Group also performed the score in January 2009.) It was also Andriessen’s first musical project after his book on Stravinsky, The Apollonian Clockwork (written with Elmer Schönberger), and it reveals much of Stravinsky’s objectivism and preference for wind instruments.

Also known as neoplasticism, De Stijl (The Style) was a Dutch artistic movement that flourished between World Wars I and II; it was also the title of a journal devoted to the movement. Primary colors or monochrome black and white, straight lines and rectangular planes and areas, avoidance of symmetry, and balance and rhythm enhanced by relationships of proportion and location were important elements of “The Style.” Andriessen wrote the following note in July 1985:

“De Stijl is a musical image of Piet Mondrian’s ‘Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue’ from 1927, but exclusively on a conceptual basis. Just like in a painting, five colors are confronted with each other in this work: the four sopranos and the trumpets, the five saxes, the trombones and guitars, the piano solo, and the lower instruments. The low instruments play a disco-like theme of 24 measures, structurally related to the boogie-woogie that Mondrian loved so much. Mondrian himself plays the piano solo, escorted by a dancer. After all, Mondrian still took dancing lessons when he was 70 years old. He danced erect, with his head slanted upwards taking ‘stylized’ steps. In the work there are many references to dance music, and not only from Mondrian’s time. Although the style is adapted to the musicians of Kaalslag, it definitely does not intend to fall for a ‘lighter’ way of composing music. Much as Mondrian recognized the progressive quality of the American jazz bands (he used to express this in French ‘chasse-bande’), he also wrote an extensive letter about Neo-Plasticism to Nelly van Desburg (July 17, 1921): ‘I don’t think dance music may yet be counted as serious music.’ The text sung in the work is a fragment from Schoenmaeker’s Beginselen der Beeldende Wiskunde (Principles of Visual Mathematics). This chapter about absoluteness of the first order has in my opinion been of a decisive influence on Mondrian’s development towards abstract painting. In any case, Schoenmaeker’s way of thinking and writing has directly influenced Mondrian’s articles for De Stijl.”

De Stijl picks up where Hadewijch left off; literally, in terms of pitches. It is also a wild mingling of “three” and “four” elements and symbols. Bach, of course, also turns up, referenced in the ostinato basses (also characteristic of boogie-woogie) and the BACH motif. (The cross was an important symbol for Mondrian, as a “T” shape of two perpendicular lines, and in staged performances Andriessen asks for the female speaker to make a “T” with her arms, reflected above the audience by mirrors and a laser.)

The climax of De Stijl recalls harmonies from Hadewijch, which also link it to Part IV. Andriessen’s original concept for the final section of De Materie was an examination of music itself. But the director Robert Wilson, who would stage the premiere of the complete De Materie for Netherlands Opera in 1989 (conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw), suggested using texts by the great scientist Marie Curie. That would be the only explicit non-Dutch text, but Andriessen accepted the idea and paired excerpts from Curie’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and from the diary she kept after her husband Pierre died, with lines from two sonnets by the Dutch Symbolist poet Willem Kloos. This connected the themes of matter and spirit in a rumination on love and death, the final separation of spirit and matter.

The music is timeless in the suspended, floating sense, slowly oscillating and pealing like a more massive manifestation of Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabulation. It does quicken, playing with musical expressions of time, but after the mostly unison choral voices evaporate with the Kloos lines (“United with you, journeying with you to eternity”), the speaker picks up Curie’s thoughts in a sort of sonic and emotional limbo. As the previous sections made reference to earlier music and styles, Part IV alludes to the stately 16th-century pavane through quotation of a solo piano Pavane that Andriessen’s father Hendrik had composed in 1927 to be choreographed by his oldest daughter. (When asked about why/how he became a composer, Louis Andriessen has said that he simply entered the family business.)

“The large measure of formalism which forms the basis of De Materie does not in itself offer any guarantee that the work will be beautiful,” Andriessen says. “I don’t want to say ‘on the contrary’ because that isn’t true either. I believe that, in art, there is a need for some sort of organization; organization is, in fact, the friend of chaos and chaos is an essential characteristic of art. A work like De Materie in particular is put together quite strictly and yet it often sounds as though it has been hurled onto the canvas in a joyous, Karel Appel-ish sort of way. [Christiaan Karel Appel (1921-2006) was a Dutch avant-garde painter and sculptor.] Appel did, of course, take a quick look to see where the mess would land before he allegedly threw the paint on the canvas. There was no question of his ‘just making a mess’.”

 

John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.