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Composed: 2015

Length: c. 110 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo, 2nd = alto flute), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets (1st = alto saxophone, 2nd = tenor saxophone), 2 bass clarinets (1st = clarinet, 2nd = contrabass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd = contrabassoon), 2 horns, 2 trumpets (both = flugelhorn), 2 trombones, timpani, percussion (African marimba, bass drum, bells, bongos, castanets, chains, cowbells, 5 cymbals, drum kit, glockenspiel, gongs, guiro, iron, lion’s roar, log drum, maracas, 2 metals, 2 snare drums, tambourine, tom-toms, triangle, tubular bells, unpitched bell or rattle or rasp, vibraphone, whip, woodblocks, xylophone), piano (= celesta), harp, synthesizer, electric guitar, bass guitar, and strings

About this Piece

Music by Louis Andriessen
Libretto by Helmut Krausser

Author of 30 monumental books, the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) made a determined effort to summarize all of contemporary knowledge, and link it to Christian theology. Extensively and intensively trained in all of the sciences as well as the humanities, he was a prolific and very popular author, despite writing in a dense, academic Latin. He accepted rather uncritically a lot of “knowledge” that was subsequently proved false, and sometimes built fanciful theories on weak material, but he inspired several generations with his insatiable drive for knowledge and his sense of wonder at creation, both human and divine.

Jesuits were trained to look for God’s presence in everything, and the “theater of the world” was a metaphorical model for Catholic doctrine, with God as the author of a great play in which we all participate. This was a common artistic image at the time, most popularly expressed – in English, at least – in Shakespeare’s famous “All the world’s a stage...” passage.  The great Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) gave the concept an explicit play of its own in El Gran Teatro del Mundo (c. 1634).

Here, German writer Helmut Krausser (b. 1964) has set Kircher at the center of the theater. A boy – Kircher himself, wannabe student, the devil? – takes Kircher and Pope Innocent XI (a patron) on a life-to-death journey across some of Kircher’s wide interests, and the dialogue is polyglot, sometimes within a single passage. The great Mexican mystic/scholar/poet/nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695) was highly influenced by Kircher, and she appears as a sort of platonic intercontinental lover, singing passages from her long poem Primer sueño (First Dream).

Louis Andriessen’s music is similarly wide ranging. Kircher wrote one of the most comprehensive music theory books of the early Baroque, and Baroque references are plentiful. There are also allusions to everything from a Dutch children’s song to the Nazi National Anthem, from jazz and swing elements to 20th-century modernist Bruno Maderna.

“There are some specific historical references, such as needing to create a fixed moment in time when Kircher plays an organ in the Vatican,” the composer says, “but my music generally travels freely through history suggesting allusions to drive the drama. It is rather like pulling books or scores off my shelf at home when I think of possible connections. Many references are ironic and serve a particular point, but generally the overall sweep of the music – like the film being created by the Quay Brothers – is intended to provide a jostling, surreal, Bosch-like world summed up in the work’s description as ‘a Grotesque’.”

The journey begins in 1678 in the dark catacombs under St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. Kircher is questioned by a lively boy, looking about 12 years old but with gestures and attitudes beyond his apparent years. Kircher exchanges mortuary asides with the Carnifex, the hangman, and Sor Juana closes the scene as a distant reflection. The music also begins in the dark, with the bass trombone playing with a sliding motif, drooping a liquid fourth or fifth down. Kircher – and Carnifex and the Boy – pick up this brooding, obsessive motivic play, broken by Kircher’s agitated recounting of his youthful wartime flight across a frozen river. Sor Juana reverse that motivic direction in her ornamented benediction.

In Scene 2, Kircher gets a call from Janssonius, his Amsterdam publisher, and parries biographical and ontological questions from the Boy. Three witches emerge from a sarcophagus and observe that Kircher is just talking to himself. They propose killing Kircher, but hide when the Pope approaches. Sor Juana ends the scene again. There is an antique feel to some of the music, more Renaissance than Baroque, but the witches get a jazz band sound, with electric guitar, alto sax, and bass clarinet setting up a syncopated ostinato riff. Sor Juana stays in that sound world for her reflection, more firmly metered and directly tuneful.

The entry of Pope Innocent XI launches Scene 3. After a chummy exchange with Kircher, the stage suddenly goes black, as the Boy transports them to Egypt 3000 years earlier. Kircher, the authority on everything, pontificates to the Pope on matters Egyptian. A tomb becomes a ship in a comic trio for Kircher, the Pope, and the Boy (whom the Pope, like the witches, cannot see) as they travel on the mythological river Lethe.

Scene 4 begins with a soft orchestral barcarolle, depicting the journey on the Lethe. It takes them not to Rome, but to Babylon and the Tower of Babel. Kircher is again the confident tour guide, but the Pope just wants to return home. Sor Juana has another reflection, and the Boy mocks Kircher’s pompous self-importance. When the Pope begs to leave, the Boy snaps his fingers and they are taken to China.

Scene 5 begins with another spoken message from Janssonius, writing about the Dutch East India Company and translating a Chinese work into Dutch. There is the enigmatic mention of the contemporary Roman historian and Papal functionary Raffaele Fabretti (1618-1700), who is introduced only to drop dead, dismissed by the Boy as “a grudger and a grouser.” The Boy begs/threatens Kircher to say his name. Kircher suggests that math (in comical jargon) may get them back to Rome. The Boy says he would help them, if only Kircher would say his name. Kircher, however, demands the help and the Boy concedes that is part of their old agreement.

Visually, Scene 6 is a jumble of equations and geometrical figures suggested by Kircher’s previous mathematical babble, with Kircher and the Pope striving upwards. A young man and a young woman meet in a parallel love scene below the main action, where Kircher and the Pope become frozen in time. The witches kill the man and have some cynical commentary on young love, which the woman contests and the Boy brusquely dismisses. The Boy snaps his fingers, killing all three. He brings the man back to life when the woman offers her soul for the deed. The two lovers close the scene.

Sor Juana introduces the scene with her most expansive aria. The lovers’ duet, almost unaccompanied, is folk-like, in contrast to the distorted cabaret swing of the witches. The music rises to a climax when the Boy restores the murdered man to life, and the scene ends with a soft echo of the lover’s duet, on the fading words “forever, forever, forever, forever, forever.”

Scene 7 is an ode to music. Kircher is actually humble and sincere about music as the voice of God and as prayer, though his two-finger playing of a small organ confirms his lack of personal skill. The Pope has mundane asides, ironic in context, and the Boy covers his ears. Shimmering cymbals lead the heavenly music, heard as a distant wind. Bass instruments come in only after Kircher is done with his aria, as a chromatically walking bass and piano support a flute song and the Pope’s aside.

Kircher continues the musical reflection in Scene 8, but the Pope asks him if there was ever a woman in his life. Kircher replies none that he ever touched, but that he knows of Sor Juana in Mexico and she affected him. Sor Juana interjects another reflection/benediction; at the end of the scene, the Boy decides that they have had enough enchantment, and takes them back to Rome. The orchestra brings some of the original motives and character back in the initial dialogue, in a scene musically elaborated mainly instrumentally, whether in lightly dancing reference to Mexican folk music or in elaborate reference to Bruno Maderna and Darmstadt. Juana’s Romantic song emerges with simple piano accompaniment. The full orchestra, though, picks up the music from her last note, leading to a backstage melodrama as Kircher, the Pope, and the Boy close the scene in spoken dialogue.

In Scene 9 the Boy tells Kircher that he has seen everything now and the final accounting is due, presenting him with the choice of remaining as he is forever in hell or becoming an unformed new-born in heaven. Kircher thinks about it, but does not choose, and the Boy interrogates him about the memory he had in the first scene of his escape in the icy river, implying that it was not an angel who saved him and that it was not to God that he gave his soul. Kircher still does not recognize him as anything other than a boy, and the Boy orders Kircher to be broken by illnesses. On his deathbed, Kircher asks Carnifex the hangman to cut out his heart and take it to a shrine to the Virgin. (Historically, Kircher’s heart was interred at a chapel he often visited in his later years.) Carnifex does so and the Boy takes the still beating heart and eats it, to discover that it is without soul.

The music turns the opening motives into something like a death march. The Boy‘s interrogation is metrically and harmonically stressed, rising to furious screaming. Kircher manages both strength and a measure of serenity in spite of the Boy (revealed as the Devil); Kircher’s last words are “We will see.” There is another furious climax for the Boy/Devil as he discovers that Kircher’s soul has indeed eluded him.

In the Epilog, philosophers and scientists (Leibnitz, Voltaire, Descartes, Goethe) discuss Kircher’s legacy, suggesting that his passion for knowledge outweighs his factual inaccuracies. The music pulls together motives and themes from the whole work, and the four intellectuals end together in a bilingual chorale. Sor Juana resolves the motivic and harmonic journey with her final benediction.

John Henken