Bright Wings: Notes on Four Angels
The passionate and protean angels of art and scripture bear little resemblance to the images of simpering cherubim everywhere prevalent in mass culture. Likewise, the charismatic, potentially dominant harp— inevitably underscoring those images—has been constantly caricatured as just the golden vehicle of glamourous, glissando sentimentality. I wondered: could one make a concerto that uses only the personae—not any explicit narrative—of angels from different cultures to liberate both image and instrument from centuries of cliché?
Why not? And what fun: ransacking sacred and secular texts for the most interesting figures I could find! But a concerto is a musical challenge, not a literary pageant: and this one’s main compositional hurdles weren’t the ones you’d expect. Don’t think the harp can’t be heard! It’s no more difficult to balance with full orchestra than is the solo violin. But most composers have conditioned us for centuries to hear the harp only as accompaniment: the orchestra sings the music, and the harp…decorates it. Could one compose a musical dialogue of which the harp’s leadership was not only audible, but unmissable? Could the harp and the orchestra—forcefully, eloquently—reverse roles?
In the Kabbalah, the angel closest to the throne of God. He stands at the peak of a tree of angels, surrounded by storm, thunder, whirlwinds, and lightning. He has seventy-two wings and countless fiery eyes. His eyelashes are lightning, his bones are made of embers, his sinews and flesh of flame. Beyond Metatron stands only the mystical contemplation of God.
Before the orchestra stands the harp alone, its strings swathed in thick paper. A five-note motto launches spiraling arpeggi in the strings. They’re answered, anticlimactically, by the muted harp, noncommittal as a harpsichord. Woodwinds echo the gesture: the harp remains unmoved. Only a firestorm of pizzicato strings prompts the harp to a full, unmuted statement—supported by lowest brass—of an imperious theme which incorporates that five-note motto: a theme that no sooner reaches a peak than it evanesces in a cloudbank of bells.
In Zoroastrianism, the Angel of Divine Intuition: one of the four attendants of Ashi, who is Truth, Justice, Virtue, Holiness, Cosmic Law, and Order. Brother and playmate to Meher, the Angel of Light and Mercy, and Rashnu, the Angel of the Judgment of Good and Evil.
Rustling drums, ringing mallets—quiet percussion declaims and subsides. Strings crunch in and out of exact pitch: and isn’t that the harp, too, in its lowest register, growling out of intonation before twanging into tune? (Unusual pedaling makes it possible.) And that duet-improvisation on the first movement’s imperious theme—are those Peking Opera glissandi all played by Chinese gongs, or has the harp, improbably, learned their inflections too?
Aria: Regina Coeli
Mary, mother of Jesus; in Roman Catholicism, the Angelic Queen, who, at the hour of her death, was assumed bodily into heaven by the seven orders of angels over whom she now reigns. She intercedes on behalf of human beings at the right hand of God.
Strings alone—high, pulseless— meditate on the rising second, the arching triplets, of the first movement’s theme. At length, the harp presents its own, simpler version: less an edict than a prayer of thanksgiving, the harp lifts the melody out of the sterner, denser harmonies of its first incarnation and frames it instead in clean C major.
The archangel Michael, the beautiful warrior prince of the heavenly hosts, crosses Abrahamic boundaries: he is protector of the Roman Catholic Church, patron of the Hebrew nation, and, with the archangel Gabriel, appeared to the prophet Mohammed. His name means “Looks Like God or “Is As God.” He can appear in three of the seven heavens simultaneously. Michael is made of snow.
Strings and brass sound an ostinato alarm: now in twelve, now in five, the music cannot settle on one pulse. Enter the harp: its intervals are familiar, but its rhythm is now martially regular, and its phrase-endings vanish under hammer-blows of octaves. A dense polychord halts the music’s flow, then promptly shatters into shards: now harp and orchestra assemble from that polychord a fleet, octave-vaulting melody, its crisp sixteenths fugitive as fireflies. While the orchestra continues in those pointed gestures, the harp fuses its own fragments into climbing scales: pauses for a cadenza-like consideration of the opening harmonies; and at length resumes the main theme—the theme which has united all four movements—and drives it to a climax of rhythm and color.
Four Angels, commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra for its principal harpist Dotian Levalier, is dedicated to Leonard Slatkin and to Ms. Levalier: in addition to the solo harp, it is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, conga drum, brake drum, bell tree, chime in F, small tam tam, 2 gongs, 3 Chinese Opera gongs, guiro, crotales, sandpaper blocks, 5 temple blocks, wood block, vibraslap, whip, xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel, 2 suspended cymbals, tambourine, triangle, celesta, piano, and strings. Duration, 25 minutes.